Operation PUGILIST and Operation SUPERCHARGE II , Eighth Army Overflanks Mareth Line (16-30 March 1943)

Chapter 8: Preparing for PUGILIST

The Terrain

SOUTH and south-east of Tripoli an escarpment, almost a range of hills, trends from the coast near Homs in a long crescent that swings in a half-circle to the west and ends just south of Gabes. This escarpment forms the southern limit of a coastal plain, some 80 miles at its widest, between Nalut and the sea. From Foum Tatahouine northwards the range is known as Monts des Ksour, popularly called the Matmata Hills, the north-western end terminating at Djebel Melab. Between the Matmata Hills and the sea the north-western end of the coastal plain steadily narrows, and in the hills and across the plain ran the Mareth Line from Toujane to the sea.

The Matmata Hills run generally north and south. Behind them to the west a stretch of desert country, known as the Dahar, runs parallel to the hills from near Nalut, with the village of Ksar Rhilane towards the northern end. Farther west lies a stretch of impassable sand desert, the Grand Erg Oriental. The northern end of the Dahar merges into a long series of salt marshes known as Chotts, the most easterly of which is entitled Chott Djerid, with an eastern extension named Chott el Fedjadj. South of and parallel to Chott el Fedjadj is a long ridge lying east and west – the Djebel Tebaga – which continues northwards as a low watershed separating the Chotts from the coastal strip. This strip, about 15 miles from Gabes, was the Gabes Gap, better known to Eighth Army as the Wadi Akarit position, from the wadi flowing north-eastwards between the watershed and the sea.

Between Djebel Tebaga and Djebel Melab a low pass runs from the Dahar to the coastal plain south-west of Gabes. This is the Tebaga Gap.1 It is about four miles long in its narrowest section and is passable for infantry and tanks over a width of about three and a half miles between the two djebels, although wheeled vehicles, generally speaking, must use the tracks. A force entering the Dahar from the coastal plain farther south could find its way back to the coast through this pass.

The Outflanking Problem

The problem now confronting Eighth Army was to force the Mareth Line and advance on Sfax, the next useable port, and the next area with useful landing grounds. The line had been built by the French in pre-war years to meet possible Italian threats from Tripolitania. In the coastal plain, here from ten to 15 miles wide, it ran immediately behind the line of Wadi Zigzaou from Zarat to Touati, the wadi being a natural anti-tank obstacle with sheer banks reaching in places a height of seventy feet. This stretch was moreover covered along the whole length by concrete and steel pillboxes and emplacements; and these defences, which were in existence before the war, had in recent months been strengthened by anti-tank ditches, wire and minefields. From Touati the line swung south-west to a point just south of Toujane, and then north-west through the Matmata Hills towards Djebel Melab. In the hills the nature of the country was relied on for defence, and there were few artificial aids.

In pre-war days it was considered that the Mareth Line could not be outflanked, because the Dahar was thought to be impassable for mechanical transport. In 1938 a French lorried force carried out an exercise to determine whether such an operation was possible, and came to the conclusion that it was not. But since 1938 the motor vehicle had improved enormously, particularly in the introduction of four-wheel drive; and most of the MT in Eighth Army was of this type. Tracked vehicles would also make light of difficulties that had stopped the pre-war lorry. Moreover, Eighth Army was by now expert in desert movement, so that there was every justification for the belief at Army Headquarters that the Dahar was passable and an outflanking move a possibility.

Rommel was never in any doubt about this, and on 10 February in an appreciation prepared for the Fuehrer, indicated clearly that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to hold off both a frontal attack and a large-scale outflanking attack via Tebaga Gap, particularly if these were combined with a southwards thrust from Gafsa. Hence he much preferred a position in the Gabes Gap, where the flanks rested on either the impassable Chotts or the sea. He had hammered away at this ever since the retreat from Alamein, but without avail, and had to be content with getting his troops back into the Mareth Line. He was no longer in command when the line was attacked, but all turned out as he had foretold, and the position in the Gabes Gap was taken up too late and was stormed by the Eighth Army within a week of making contact.

More than this, Rommel regarded the Gabes Gap position merely as a better alternative than Mareth for the defence of southern Tunisia. He had insisted until as late as 3 March, when the proposal was rejected in both Rome and Berlin, that the only chance the Axis had to retain a front in Africa was to offer limited delays at both Mareth and Gabes Gap, and to concentrate for protracted defence in the Enfidaville line. From this area the best troops, at least, could be evacuated to Europe. When he visited Hitler on 10 March he renewed his argument without success, but managed to convince Hitler that the Gabes Gap was a sounder defensive position than Mareth. Kesselring was consequently ordered to move the Spezia and Pistoia Divisions to the Gabes Gap for work there, to relieve 164 Light Division about Matmata by Centauro Division, the former to stiffen the Italian units in the Mareth Line, and to employ Trieste Division to watch for movement from Gafsa. But Kesselring did not agree! The Comando Supremo was not informed, so that although Kesselring had passed the orders on to von Arnim, who tried to implement them, Messe refused to comply without instructions from Rome. He believed that this was just a back-door method of forcing the Axis troops back to Enfidaville. However, under pressure, Messe agreed on 14 March to release Spezia and Pistoia Divisions, but by the 16th Kesselring had prevailed upon Hitler to change his mind and these divisions were ordered back to their former positions in the Mareth Line. It was a process that could not fail to aggravate the tensions that already existed between the Axis partners.

But within limits, Rommel did his best to make things difficult for Eighth Army. For as long as he could he defended the passes into the Dahar from the area round Foum Tatahouine, but the Axis forces were scanty and in the outcome were easily driven away by 4 Light Armoured Brigade. From there they went to swell the forces holding the Tebaga Gap, where some attempt had been made to prepare defences. The work had started some time before, indeed as early as 1941, but from air photographs the defences seemed to be patchy, and to include only short lengths of anti-tank ditch, a few weapon pits and emplacements, and some stretches of wire. The line was not continuous, had no depth and could not impose more than some slight delay on an attacker.

Steps were taken also to defend other crossings of the Matmata Hills from the Dahar back to the coast via the road through Ksar el Hallouf, and via the road through Tamezred and Matmata. Nervousness about these roads persisted for some days after the battle had started, with some reason, for consideration had been given to using the French to open these passes from the west, and eventually 4 Indian Division was directed on Matmata from the east.

The outflanking operation had been in Montgomery’s mind for some months, but before making final plans it was necessary to discover a practicable route into the Dahar at a point well clear of the Mareth Line, and whether in fact the Dahar was passable. While at Marble Arch in December 1942, the LRDG was instructed to reconnoitre the area early in January, and T1 Patrol, under Captain Wilder ,2 crossed into Tunisia south of Nalut on 12 January, the first troops of Eighth Army to do so. About 30 miles south-west of Foum Tatahouine they found a pass through the hills into the Dahar, later known as Wilder’s Gap. Wilder’s reconnaissance did not penetrate very far, but a later reconnaissance under Lieutenant Tinker3 went north on 27 January to Djebel Tebaga and examined the Tebaga Gap, confirming that the going throughout was suitable for a force of all arms.4 During his reconnaissance the LRDG base camp at Ksar Rhilane was shot up by enemy aircraft and considerable damage was done. This action was the first of a number which showed the enemy’s nervousness about operations over this route.

But the last doubts had been dispersed, and it was now known that the route was a practicable one, and that any force in the Dahar could be supplied from Medenine by way of Wilder’s Gap. Eighth Army had in 2 NZ Division a formation already well trained in long desert moves.

Montgomery had moved Leclerc’s Force (now known as ‘L’ Force) forward from Nalut to Ksar Rhilane, where it operated during the Battle of Medenine.5 Here on 10 March it was suddenly attacked by an enemy force of armoured cars, artillery and aircraft. ‘L’ Force stood firm, and helped by the Desert Air Force drove off the attackers and inflicted severe losses on them. It was a spirited performance and ensured protection to the Dahar south of Ksar Rhilane, but showed again the enemy’s sensitivity.

2 NZ Division Prepares

The Army plan, issued on 26 February, prescribed that an enlarged Division, entitled New Zealand Corps, would make a turning movement via Nalut and Ksar Rhilane. Since then, however, 2 NZ Division had moved forward to Medenine and on 10 March was still there.6 The route via Nalut had been prescribed on the assumption that the Division would start from Tripoli and would move along the southern edge of the coastal plain. There was obviously no point now in going back as far as Nalut; but some rearward movement was necessary, for the direct road from Medenine to Foum Tatahouine was likely to be open to enemy ground observation. In addition there was always the possibility that rearward movement would mislead the enemy. It was decided therefore that NZ Corps should go back to Ben Gardane in daylight, and move at night on the road from Ben Gardane to Foum Tatahouine.

On 5 March, the day before the enemy attack at Medenine, a party from 6 Field Company reconnoitred this route and from Foum Tatahouine went south for 30 miles as far as, and indeed beyond, the turn-off to Wilder’s Gap. All the roads were found to be suitable for all types of traffic, although needing some repairs. On 8 March detachments from 5 Field Park Company and 6 Field Company began clearing and improving the road from Ben Gardane to Foum Tatahouine and on to Wilder’s Gap, and marking a track through the Gap into an assembly area in the Dahar, ten miles north-west of the Gap and 35 miles south-west of Foum Tatahouine. The track was, as usual, marked with the black diamond sign.

The engineers at this time also made a plaster model of the Tebaga Gap area, used by the GOC at many of his conferences, and later by brigade commanders. There were as usual varied opinions about the usefulness of the model, but it appears that it was genuinely helpful during the planning stages, although in no way taking the place of ground reconnaissance.

On 10 March General Freyberg held a conference to discuss the move to the assembly area. At this conference he compared the strength of the future NZ Corps with any enemy forces that might be met, and at this stage he considered only the German Africa Corps7 which, disregarding any Italian forces, could be expected to oppose an outflanking movement. The 164th Light Division had been identified in the Mareth Line, where the joint operations of 10 and 30 Corps would probably retain it, and 10 Panzer Division was known to be north of Gabes.

The GOC concluded that NZ Corps would be stronger than Africa Corps in troops, about 20,000 (actually 25,600) to 19,300; in field and medium artillery, 112 to 55; in anti-tank guns, 172 to 120, and in tanks, 150 (excluding Divisional Cavalry and ‘L’ Force) to 70. Estimates of enemy strengths prepared after this conference, to 19 March, lifted the number of troops to 21,500, the field and medium artillery to 100 and the tank strength to 120. But whatever discrepancies between the estimated strength and the actual, for which no reliable figures are available, General Freyberg ‘s comment at his conference on the 10th, that the operation was not as rash as might appear when considering the map, seems valid enough.

During the days from 7 March onwards 2 NZ Division stocked up with supplies ready for a move which was to start about 11 March – six days’ rations and water, the latter at half a gallon per man per day, and petrol for 300 miles. As a security measure while in the sparsely populated coastal area, fernleaf signs were obliterated from all vehicles, and shoulder titles and hat badges removed. A press release was made that 2 NZ Division was holding part of the Mareth Line. Whether for these or for other reasons the Germans were slow in identifying the Division when operations resumed and reported attacks by formations that were nowhere in the area.

The 8th Armoured Brigade from 7 Armoured Division came under command on 10 March. It consisted of 3 Royal Tanks, Notts Yeomanry, and Staffordshire Yeomanry, all heavy tank regiments, and 1 Buffs, 111 Field Regiment, RA, and ancillary units. The number of tanks held varied a little from day to day, but just before the campaign started their tank state was as follows:

3 RTR Notts Yeo Staffs Yeo HQ Total
Shermans 25 23 28 76
Grants 4 4 3 2 13
Crusaders 22 19 19 2 62
Total 151
Armoured Cars 8 6 7 21

It was normal in the brigade to allocate companies of the Buffs to armoured regiments, so forming ‘Armoured Regimental Groups’.

‘A’ Company thus moved under command of Notts Yeo, ‘B’ Company under 3 RTR, and ‘C’ Company under Staffs Yeo. Only in a special case, where for instance some sector was to be held as a firm base, did 1 Buffs operate as a battalion.

On 11 March the additional platoons for Petrol Company, approved while the Division was at Bardia,8 duly joined up, so increasing the company from two to five platoons and increasing the reserves of petrol it was possible to have immediately available.

At midnight on 11–12 March 2 NZ Division passed from the command of 30 Corps to that of NZ Corps, the constitution of the latter being:

2nd NZ Division – Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg

8th Armoured Brigade – Brigadier C. B. C. Harvey

King’s Dragoon Guards (armoured cars)

64th Medium Regiment, RA

57th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, less one battery

One battery 53 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, RA

‘L’ Force – General Leclerc9

FFF Column

At this time ‘L’ Force consisted of the following:

Two troops armoured cars

One squadron self-propelled guns

Eleven other guns of various types

Anti-tank regiment

Anti-aircraft guns

Two reconnaissance companies

Five lorried companies

One Greek squadron

The Free French Flying Column consisted of:

Two armoured car squadrons

One tank company (11 Crusaders and 2 Shermans)

Two platoons infantry

The whole French force numbered about 3500 men and 900 vehicles, and was self-contained for long periods, longer even than 2 NZ Division. A proportion of its supporting artillery was British. The French force joined NZ Corps in situ, remaining in its existing area round Ksar Rhilane.

General Freyberg commanded both the Corps and the Division, and did not form a separate Corps Headquarters nor was there any corps echelon of administrative troops. Strictly speaking, therefore, the force was a much augmented division and not a true corps. On the tactical side, the absence of a separate Corps Headquarters was not queried before the battle, but at a conference held in Tripoli towards the end of February the administrative staff of the Eighth Army expressed some concern at difficulties that might arise owing to the absence of the supply echelon normally interposed between a division and the army roadhead.10 But the administrative staff of 2 NZ Division and the CRASC were confident that they could compete with the task and did not want additional staff. All that was wanted was additional RASC units, and these were duly provided. At no point during the operations was there any administrative restriction or delay.

The initial movement of the Corps, less the French Group, to the assembly area began at a starting point a few miles east of Medenine, and was to be via a staging area about halfway between Ben Gardane and Foum Tatahouine. Here dumps of petrol had been arranged so that units could replenish. Group movements were as follows:

To Staging Area To Assembly Area
6 Infantry Brigade Group 8 a.m., 11 March Night 11–12 March
5 Infantry Brigade Group 8 a.m., 12 March Night 12–13 March
Headquarters 11.30 a.m., 12 March Night 12–13 March
ASC Group Night 13–14 March
Artillery Group 8 a.m., 14 March Night 14–15 March
Reserve Group 10 a.m., 14 March Night 14–15 March
8 Armoured Brigade Group 2 p.m., 14 March Night 15–16 March

The distance from starting point to staging area was about 60 miles, and from there to assembly area about seventy. The move back to Ben Gardane was in daylight, as there was no objection to enemy aircraft spotting an apparent withdrawal; but for most groups the move thence to the staging area was also in daylight, probably on the grounds that this location could have served as an assembly area for troops moving into the Mareth Line. The move forward to the assembly area was by night. Administrative Group, which had been in the Ben Gardane area during the Medenine operations, was to move off at 11 a.m. on 17 March and would thus be last in the column.

Tracked vehicles of all groups were to be moved on transporters from the Medenine area, leaving on 15 March for the staging area, and moving on the night 16–17 March to an unloading point south of Foum Tatahouine. Vehicles would be unloaded before daylight and lie camouflaged during 17 March, moving after dark to rejoin their units in the assembly area.

Except in cases of operational necessity, wireless silence was to be observed, all wireless traffic for NZ Corps being routed as for Rear Headquarters ‘L’ Force near the assembly area, through a set manned by Royal Signals operators. After convoys left the staging area no enemy aircraft were to be engaged unless they made a direct attack. Once in the assembly area movement was to be at a speed that would not raise dust, and there were to be no fires or lights during darkness.

NZ Corps Moves Forward

The moves to the staging area passed off without incident. From there to the assembly area there were some delays owing to the opening and closing of columns in the darkness and without headlights; but again Groups reached their areas in reasonable time. Vehicles were at once dispersed facing north in an attempt to reduce shadow and prevent reflection of sunlight from windscreens, and camouflage nets were spread. Troops were dug in. But none of these precautions could prevent an enemy reconnaissance aircraft flying over the area in the evening of 12 March, when 6 Brigade Group was already there. It was at an estimated height of 10,000 feet, and evoked much speculation. German air reconnaissance in fact failed to detect the assembly area until the 16th, and not positively until the 18th.

The NZASC Group arrived in the assembly area early on 14 March, dumped its second-line holdings and, with all available transport, moved to an Army Roadhead at Dehibat, 50 miles southeast of Wilder’s Gap. Two RASC companies – one Petrol and one Ammunition – had already come under command to help in the formation of a Field Maintenance Centre11 at Bir Amir, just short of the Gap. On 17 March, NZASC was further augmented by three General Transport Companies and two Water Tank Companies from RASC, all to provide third-line transport for NZ Corps between the roadhead and the Field Maintenance Centre. Some water was found in a well at Bir Amir and was issued from 14 March onwards.

On 17 March Administrative Group arrived in the assembly area and the Corps’ concentration was completed, formations being disposed along the axis over a distance of some six miles, with Divisional Cavalry in front, and Administrative Group in the rear. The Corps spent the time resting and training, the latter including short route marches during the early hours of darkness. The perimeter of the area was patrolled, and in the interests of security all troops on patrol were searched for documents before commencing duty. No contact was made with the enemy, but Arabs were troublesome, nearly a hundred lamps disappearing from the Corps axis. Roving patrols had to be used to check this.

PUGILIST was explained to all officers on 14 March, and later to NCOs and the rank and file. Some very good air photographs of the enemy defences at Tebaga Gap were issued and were examined and discussed, particularly by the artillery and by 6 Brigade Group, which was to be in the lead.

The French Group was instructed on 14 March to maintain patrols north and north-east of Ksar Rhilane to prevent enemy ground observation of the Corps’ assembly. That there was some justification for this precaution was made evident on the night 15–16 March, when considerable movement of motor transport with headlights was seen immediately to the east of the El Outid feature. Again, on the morning of 16 March scattered vehicles were seen south-east of Ksar Tarcine.

A party of representatives from KDG, LRDG and 2 NZ Divisional Engineers left on 14 March to reconnoitre the going to the next staging area, some 25 miles farther on. Armoured cars from KDG provided protection. This reconnaissance was uneventful, but a party from 6 Field Company that ventured still farther ahead on 16 March to investigate the crossing of Wadi bel Krecheb (north-east of Ksar Rhilane) was unable to reach its objective owing to enemy fire from El Outid.

NZ Corps Operation Order No. 1

On 16 March NZ Corps issued Operation Order No. 1. This gave briefly the Eighth Army plan – and the ‘Intention’ paragraph which reads: ‘NZ Corps will capture the airfields West of SFAX destroying any enemy forces encountered.’

The groupings and order of march were:

2nd NZ Divisional Cavalry, less B Echelon transport

KDG plus one troop artillery

8th Armoured Brigade Group, less B2 Echelon transport

Gun Group (4th NZ Field Regiment, 64th Medium Regiment, and those anti-tank and light anti-aircraft units not with other groups)

6th NZ Brigade Group – normal, plus an extra anti-tank battery and machine-gun company B Echelon

Group NZ Corps Headquarters and Signals Reserve Group – portions of 27 (MG) Battalion and other subunits not allocated elsewhere

5th NZ Brigade Group – normal, but with 1 NZ Ammunition Company under command for the march

Administrative Group, including NZASC units not with other groups

The advance would be in three stages. Stage I was a march of some 20 to 30 miles, on the night 19–20 March, commencing at 7 p.m. This would bring the leading elements of the Corps just short of Wadi bel Krecheb.

Stage II, a further advance of 40 miles, was to be carried out on 20–21 March with the same timings, but less Administrative Group, which would not move. The B Echelon Group would move as part of 6 Brigade Group in order to have protection with the closer approach to the enemy. At the end of this stage the head of the column would be some ten miles short of Tebaga Gap.

Prior to Stage II the French Group would capture El Outid and Bir Soltane, and maintain active patrolling to the north and northeast, while KDG provided flank protection along the right flank. There are one or two references in the order to the need for watching this flank, which was a long one.

All vehicles were to refuel at Stage II and be prepared to move forward at first light on 21 March for Stage III, ‘with the object of penetrating the Eastern flank of the enemy defences … and capturing the objective PLUM’, which was the entrance to the Tebaga Gap. If this was not captured immediately it would be taken as soon after first light as possible. Divisional Cavalry and 8 Armoured Brigade were entrusted with the initial penetration of PLUM.

After the capture of PLUM the Corps was to advance on El Hamma (PEACH) and finally to a line of hills overlooking the coast road just north-west of Gabes (GRAPE). In addition, Montgomery and Freyberg agreed on a possible alternative advance from PLUM which turned more to the east and bypassed El Hamma well to the south, thereafter heading towards Gabes. This alternative would be acted upon on receipt of its codename, SIDEWINDOWS, from Montgomery. (It will be remembered that 30 Corps was to break in through the Mareth Line and advance along the main road and capture Gabes.)

After securing GRAPE, NZ Corps ‘ next objective was the landing grounds west of Sfax, an operation not assigned to the Corps in the Army outline plan, but which the GOC explained at his conference would be carried out by continuing the outflanking move, with the French giving flank protection and 10 Corps, with two armoured divisions, driving on Sfax itself.

This plan, resulting from many discussions subsequent to the issue of the Eighth Army general plan on 26 February 1943, set the tasks awaiting NZ Corps.

The order contained instructions about wireless silence and recognition of ‘own troops’, and laid down ‘ground to air’ and ‘target marking’ signals, pointing out that the operation would be closely supported by the Desert Air Force.

The part to be played by NZ Corps, within the Eighth Army plan, was that by the night 20–21 March, the night of the 30 Corps attack on the main Mareth position, the Corps would have bumped the enemy at the Tebaga switch line, made evident the seriousness of the threat from this flank and so have attracted the uncommitted German reserve, and by further vigorous activity would prevent a counter-attack against the 30th Corps break in the line. Thirtieth Corps, protected on its open flank by 10th Corps, which was to begin operations in the Matmata Hills, would then start ‘rolling up’ the Mareth position from east to west. Continuing its advance, NZ Corps would establish itself on the objective northwest of Gabes, commanding the coastal road, which by then would have become the only withdrawal route for the Axis forces not already destroyed or escaped. Tenth Corps, supported by NZ Corps, would then exploit through Gabes to Sfax, for it was hoped that the complete defeat of the enemy, followed by rapid exploitation, would prevent a delay at Wadi Akarit. In the terms of Montgomery’s general plan published on 26 February, the final objective for PUGILIST was Sfax. ‘Once operations have begun on night 20–21 March they will be conducted relentlessly until Sfax has been reached.’

Administrative Instructions

All first-line units were to leave the assembly area with six days’ rations and water, petrol for a minimum of 300 miles and ammunition up to scale. Second-line vehicles would have four days’ rations and water, and petrol for 100 miles for all vehicles. One day’s rations and water and petrol to top up vehicles would be available at the end of Stage I, and thereafter replenishment would be as the tactical situation permitted. Local water supplies, high in magnesium content, were not to be used for drinking. A special ‘Golden List’ was prepared for essential administrative personnel, and distinctive labels provided for the windscreens of their vehicles, so as to ensure their high priority in the advance. The list included personnel for the airfields round Gabes and for Sfax port, and for certain NZASC units which were to control supplies at Gabes and Sfax.

New Zealand Corps was to have priority during PUGILIST for the evacuation of wounded by air, three aircraft being made available. Two would each carry six lying and two sitting patients, and the third would carry eleven lying or twenty-four sitting. It was hoped to use suitable landing grounds near the Main Dressing Station, but otherwise one Field Ambulance would take patients to the landing ground and superintend evacuation by air.


Final Preparations

On 17 March, an unpleasantly windy day with dust lifting freely, the GOC held a conference of commanding officers. The notes of this conference show very clearly the nature of the task ahead, and the manner in which it was proposed to accomplish it:

‘… The force is divided into several groups. … We have a striking force composed of a recce element of two cavalry regts under the comd of the Force Commander. We have an armd bde. We have a strong gun group which starts off with a regt of arty under the 8th Armd Bde Commander, plus a fd arty regt and the medium arty of the 64 Med Regt. Whenever the arty are brought into operation we can count on having two fd regts and a med regt. When the situation allows we can group the two fd regts with the 2 Inf Bde groups. We have a very strong striking force of armour and guns. In addition we have two inf bde groups, not strong in striking power, but very strong indeed in defence, particularly against tank attack. Our Bde Group is capable of putting out a gun line of between 10 and 15 thousand yards, or even more if necessary … either by day or by night, and they are capable of strong infantry offensive action with the bayonet. There is also Gen Le Clerc’s force which, for the start, is guarding our L of C and later in the defence North of Gabes of our left flank . … Lastly we have the Adm[inistrative] group, the importance of which I will go into later.

‘There are one or two points of tactics. We endeavour to effect a tactical surprise on the battlefield. To do so we have to move fast across country on a very narrow front, with a very deep flank, sometimes as long as 14 miles. The protection of that flank must not weigh too heavily and people must not get preoccupied with their flanks. We must strike quickly and strike hard. That does not, of course, absolve Group Comds from protecting their exposed flanks, but they must have confidence in the 6-pdr gun. … We endeavour to occupy an area which is vital to him, where he must oppose us. We achieve this first by surprise and then by speed and blitz tactics. To do so we have to take risks. In this particular operation we are at some disadvantage owing to bottlenecks. Where country is open we can pin him to the ground and out-manoeuvre him. Where there are bottlenecks we may have to resort to ordinary bombardment tactics and attack by night with the bayonet. We can only avoid that by moving fast and adopting blitz tactics. … We know the strength of his mobile force … he can only oppose us with his DAK. We know that in striking and defensive power we are stronger than he is. Further, by striking fast we hope to divide the DAK into two parts, dividing the armour from the guns. Our job is to force him to oppose us with his tanks, leaving his guns to join up afterwards … that is a posn from which any further advance by us would threaten to cut off his main Army. If the situation developed in that way we would bring up our gun group and turn the medium arty on him. They don’t like the heavy aimed shell. We can destroy him while he is in the open with our mass of arty. We must be able to deploy our powerful gun group quickly, and for that reason it is well to the front in the order of march.

‘I want to say a word about the gun line technique. Having pinned the enemy we want to put out a gun line to restore to the armour its power of manoeuvre. If, when you manoeuvre your armour the enemy moves off your front, you can then push the line forward. The gun line can be put out by the motor bn of the armd bde, but it may have to be put out by an inf bde group. If the latter course is necessary economy of force should be considered. I do not think large bns of infantry are needed in the front line. I think you can retain in reserve a large proportion of your bayonet men, as your gun line in daytime wants machine-guns, a percentage of Brens, and the strong A-Tk element. That enables you to rest the bayonet men for possible operations at night.

‘I want to say a word or two about tank tactics. We must not rush into an enemy gun line for it is tank suicide. The tactic is to pin him and seek for a flank. If there are no flanks the tactic will be to attack with inf under the concentrated arty of the whole force.

‘We have a very strong bombardment group, and one of our main objects is to bring as many of the enemy as we can within range of that arty. If we can bring five fd regts on to his force we have gone a long way to breaking his morale … the arty is going to play the biggest part in this operation. We have only 200 rounds of medium and 360 rounds of 25-pr amn [per gun]. To achieve our object we must in the first place keep our L of C open and we have taken a good deal of care to ensure that there is a quick flow of medium and field arty amn . …’

General Freyberg then went on to describe the problems that were to be overcome during the approach to PLUM. Of these the most formidable was the crossing of Wadi el Aredj, where it was thought that eight hours’ preparation by the engineers would be necessary to construct a nine-lane passage. To avoid delay, for a two-hour delay might be decisive, vehicles were to rush through the lanes and then open out again on the other side. At PLUM itself, the planned operation was described in the following words:

‘The armd group will get up to some posn which [in the first place] is a firm base from which the Divisional Cavalry and Tac HQ can operate. Div Cav will recce as wide as possible to the left flank. They will then try to get round on to the high ground [Djebel Tebaga ] and by light signal will direct the heavy tanks through. It is essential that that high ground should be taken because it commands the roads and approaches to … [El Hamma ]. The object is to get that manoeuvre over by dark. If that operation fails the battlegroup will cover the deployment of the gun group. The latter will deploy after daylight and will proceed with systematic registration of the enemy position. We shall then carry out an infantry and tank attack under arty bombardment with the object of clearing a way for the force to move on. We shall have, therefore, either an immediate attack or a deliberate attack. The latter would take about three hours to lay on and would be launched about 0900. All the time it is being mounted the air will pay attention to that gap and the roads and approaches along which 15 Pz and the Matmata Garrison [164 Light Division] would come. Our aim is to get into a posn and force him to bring up the 15 Pz and then bring in our gun group and hammer him, at the same time push out a gun line and then moving our armour round to cut the enemy off. With regard to the Adm situation we are able to operate in that area indefinitely. Gen Le Clerc is forming a firm base to which we are bringing up our Adm Group. He will run a shuttle service and convoy things through.’

Considerable thought had been given to the timing of the advance of NZ Corps from the assembly area. At the conference Captain Costello ,13 the Intelligence Officer, explained that as 164th German Light Division had been withdrawing on Matmata from Kreddache and Hallouf, Eighth Army Intelligence had a theory that the enemy intention might be to retire from the Mareth Line without offering prolonged resistance. General Freyberg then went on to say that he did not agree with this, but, with all preparations to be completed by dawn on 18 March, it might be necessary to move that evening, instead of at dusk on the 19th as in the original plan. He would see General Montgomery on the afternoon of the 18th, and a decision would be made. There was, too, the matter of detection of the assembly area by enemy reconnaissance, for obviously if the Corps was clearly discovered there was no purpose in making difficult night moves. If his reconnaissance aircraft seen on the 16th had definitely picked up the assembly area, the GOC thought that he would have returned at night-time with flares to detect a further move. But the movement of his reconnaissance aircraft, which the Desert Air Force was trying to keep grounded by blitzing the enemy landing grounds, should make this point clear and the timetable could be adjusted. The important point was that NZ Corps should get a good start on 21 Panzer Division, the reserve for the Mareth Line.

An earlier start, or a daylight move during the approach march, would, as the GOC pointed out, be welcomed by 30 Corps, for it would attract ‘a good deal of interest’ from the Mareth Line to the switch line at Tebaga. On the other hand, a delayed advance would give NZ Corps a similar advantage, ‘and preoccupy the enemy so that our night thrust would unbalance him.’ At Headquarters Eighth Army, to which Freyberg flew on 18 March, General Montgomery was very keen that NZ Corps should advance earlier than had been planned, on the afternoon instead of the evening of 19 March. As Army Intelligence had no further evidence of an accelerated enemy withdrawal, it is probable that Montgomery’s eye was on the better prospects for 30 Corps that an earlier move would make possible, but he left the decision to General Freyberg. Freyberg himself was obviously still interested in the idea of the enemy reserve being committed on the main Mareth line, for after his meeting with Montgomery he asked General Leese, Commander 30th Corps, to be sure to let him know if the 30th Corps attack was not successful. He was a little anxious about the method of the 30 Corps attack, for penetration was to be achieved on a narrow front by one division reinforced by an armoured brigade, and Freyberg was doubtful if this was sufficient to crash the formidable defences and allow rapid exploitation on a broad front. It is thus very probable that General Freyberg allowed the thought of a 30th Corps failure to weigh heavily on his mind, for this would be a situation in which the whole of the enemy mobile force would be available against NZ Corps. On the other hand, Montgomery was relying on NZ Corps so to threaten the rear of the whole Mareth position that counter-attack against 30th Corps would be impossible, and pressure from his three corps would avoid serious concentration of enemy force against any one of them. He considered that with the number of guns available, and the depth of the defences, a break-in on a narrow front was the only practicable solution.

Before leaving Montgomery’s headquarters the arrangement was made that codewords would be used as signals to provide information helpful in making the decision as to the start time for NZ Corps. BENGHAZI MINUS would mean that Eighth Army had intelligence that the enemy was aware of the outflanking movement, but that there was no reaction. BENGHAZI PLUS would indicate awareness and a violent reaction, and TRIPOLI, followed by a time, would be an order to move at that time. General Freyberg could also send TRIPOLI and a time of his own choosing. Maximum air cover for the wadi crossings would be provided in either case, and Freyberg was assured that supplies for one brigade could be dropped by parachute and that this could be repeated.

This concluded the planning, and NZ Corps was standing ready. All New Zealand shoulder titles, badges and vehicle signs had been replaced on 18 March, and all units were probably better briefed for the forthcoming operation than ever before.

The attack of the French forces on the El Outid feature was advanced from the night 20–21 March to that of 18–19 March, to ensure that the enemy had no observation on the crossings over Wadi el Aredj and Wadi bel Krecheb, which appeared to be bottlenecks. In the end the feature was occupied during the night 18th–19th without serious opposition, as the enemy had withdrawn to the north. The French sought him with patrols for some distance, and also patrolled to the north-east, but no contact was made. With the French went 6 Field Company with two bulldozers to prepare crossings over the wadis. Mines were found at Wadi el Aredj, in soft sand. The engineers14 worked throughout the night 18–19 March until the moon set at 5.30 a.m., and continued after daylight. By 2 p.m. on 19 March they had prepared nine tracks across the wadi. They then went on to Wadi bel Krecheb and by 7 p.m. had prepared one lane 150 yards wide. It was a good day’s work.

It was fine on 19 March. After a short conference in the morning, the GOC decided early in the afternoon to adhere to the official timings and commence the march after dark. This meant that there would be marches on two successive nights, and that following on the second night the Corps would close in on PLUM. At the conference Brigadier Harvey entered a mild caveat about the strain on tank crews in having to drive for so long in the dark, over difficult wadis; but he went on to say that the brigade would get there nevertheless.

First Army Front

After the Kasserine fighting in the latter half of February the main task on First Army’s front was reorganisation, followed by a defensive phase. The 2nd US Corps after its defeat passed to the direct command of Eighteenth Army Group, so enabling General Alexander to give personal attention to restoring the rather shaken morale of the corps, the troops of which were experiencing their first real fighting. Alexander also began to form a central Army Group Reserve, to be commanded by Headquarters 9 Corps, which had just arrived. The reserve initially was 6th British Armoured Division, soon to be joined by 4th British Division. This was part of long-term planning; but for the moment the only fully active front was that of Eighth Army.

In order to distract the enemy’s attention, and ensure that the enemy troops in the Gabes – Sfax area did not move away to the Mareth front, Alexander now initiated a diversionary attack. The 2nd US Corps, in good heart again, accordingly attacked and captured Gafsa on 17 March, and continued to advance eastwards up to 20 miles. This established a definite threat to the lines of communication of 1 Italian Army at Mareth, and as a result 10th Panzer Division remained in the area north-west of Gabes and was unlikely to move south. A secondary object of the attack was to open up a new line of communication for Eighth Army once it had reached Gabes, and as a first step a dump of petrol was formed at Gafsa.

The Enemy

On 19 March enemy dispositions and strengths were as follows:

(a) From north to south in the Mareth Line

20th Italian Corps:

Young Fascists 5000

Trieste – 3000

90 Light – 6500

21st Italian Corps:

Spezia – 5000

Pistoia – 6000

164th German Light – 6000

The last-named division was on the right flank in the hills, with detachments on the Hallouf Pass and at Kreddache. It had only one battery of artillery.

(b) In reserve to the Mareth Line

15th Panzer Division – 50 tanks, 7000 men

(c) In the Tebaga switch line

Saharan Group – see following page for strength

(d) Uncommitted

21st Panzer Division at Gabes – 70 tanks, 8000 men

(e) On the Gafsa front

10th Panzer Division – 50 tanks, 6000 men

Centauro Group – 30 tanks, 7000 men

The 19th Flak Division, with sixteen 88-millimetre batteries and several 20-millimetre anti-aircraft batteries, was all on the coast, the 1st Luftwaffe Brigade, little stronger than a battalion, was behind Young Fascists, and Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment watched the main Gabes – Mareth road. These, together with 164th German Light Division, comprised the only mobile infantry groups available.

The estimated grand total of enemy fighting strength was 73,500 men, 480 anti-tank guns, 455 field and medium guns, 220 tanks, and 75 88-millimetre guns.

The Saharan Group was commanded by the Italian General Mannerini and consisted of a somewhat scrappy lot of Italian units which Messe himself later described as ‘picked up here and there’. Its exact constitution is not known, but there was a ‘Savona Brigade’ and various Saharan companies largely drawn from frontier guards and from remnants of the garrison posts in southern Libya. One German narrator says that there were ‘about five battalions and three light batteries’, but this estimate is certainly too low for artillery units. Another detailed estimate shows that there were about ten companies of sorts and eight batteries, very mixed in nature and calibre. Probably the total strength was something short of 2500, which is the highest figure given anywhere. It was known to the Intelligence service – and so to NZ Corps – that the troops in the Gap were all Italian, and that they were not particularly well organised.

Post-war evidence indicates that while the enemy expected a flank attack on the Mareth defences, he did not think initially that the outflanking force would be so strong or would ‘go large’ as far south-west as Foum Tatahouine; but from 16 March onwards his occasional reconnaissance planes made him more and more aware of the assembly of NZ Corps, although he believed it to be a combination of 10th Armoured Division and 4th Indian Division. At this time 2nd NZ Division was thought to be still round Medenine. On 16 March Messe reported definitely that Eighth Army was preparing to launch an operation west of the Matmata Hills.

Rommel was succeeded as Commander-in-Chief by General von Arnim of 5th Panzer Army, which General von Vaerst took over. Rommel’s army, now renamed 1st Italian Army, was under General Messe. (He was not promoted Marshal until the last day of fighting in North Africa.) This was the first time that German divisions had come under Italian field command. Rommel’s last act was to appoint a German general to be liaison officer with 1st Italian Army, the appointment being effective as from 8 March, which was a day or so before Rommel left Africa. His appointee was Major-General Bayerlein, who had long experience in North Africa with Africa Corps and on Rommel’s staff.

From the first Bayerlein regarded himself as more than a mere liaison officer, and seems gradually to have taken command of the German units, until there were two headquarters in 1st Italian Army – Messe’s, which in Bayerlein’s words ‘issued paper orders which could not be carried out and which in any case arrived too late’, and Bayerlein’s, which issued orders to the German troops direct, and left it to the Italians to conform. One should not accept everything Bayerlein says as correct, but it is easy to see that a group of units such as 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions and 90th and 164th German Light Divisions would not take kindly to being commanded by a newly-arrived Italian, who, while he had shown ability on the Russian front and also had sensible ideas while in Africa, appears to have been vain and self-centred. It can be accepted then that the German units, the hard core of the enemy strength, were in effect still under German command.

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Chapter 9: PUGILIST – a Check

AT 6 p.m. on 19 March NZ Corps began its advance in desert formation on a nine-vehicle front, the speed prescribed being 8 m.i.h.1 with vehicles at 50 yards’ dispersion. Bright moonlight helped to overcome the difficulties of crossing the numerous wadis and sand dunes. The Corps completed its move to the next staging area, a journey of about 30 miles, not long after midnight. Vehicles were at once topped up with petrol, and Petrol Company vehicles then returned to the Field Maintenance Centre at Bir Amir. A troop from 26 Field Battery was detached to join King’s Dragoon Guards, the advanced guard for the next day. All other troops bedded down until daylight on 20 March.

BENGHAZI MINUS(the enemy was aware of the move), which had been received during the march, decided the GOC to move off immediately after breakfast and not wait until night. Wireless silence was broken shortly after 2.30 a.m. on 20 March when ‘TRIPOLI 0730’ was sent to Army Headquarters, and it was arranged that full wireless communications could open at 7 a.m. It is not clear on what grounds Montgomery sent BENGHAZI MINUS, and in fact there is a suspicion that it was just one way of asking the Corps to speed up its rate of advance.

At 6 a.m. 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery moved off to cover the crossing of Wadi el Aredj, and at the same time Divisional Cavalry (Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant) crossed the wadi and moved to the right flank as a protective screen. KDG (Lieutenant-Colonel M. J. Lindsay) was now well in advance of the Corps, and by 12.20 p.m. had crossed the road from Bir Soltane to Ksar el Hallouf, having been lightly opposed by elements of 3 Reconnaissance Unit. The French Group pushed ahead on the right flank towards Point 298 (ten miles north of this road) with orders to keep up its advance, and in particular to watch the debouchment of the tracks from Matmata and Tamezred. It was opposed during the day by 220 Reconnaissance Unit of 164th German Light Division. The French Group, KDG and Divisional Cavalry together thus formed a long right-flank guard.

Shortly after midday the tail of the Corps crossed both Wadi el Aredj and Wadi bel Krecheb, despite some difficulties of going. The advance continued steadily, but at 4 p.m. the gun group was bombed by aircraft of the United States Army Corps. There were some casualties and one truck was destroyed. It seemed that the pilots became conscious of their mistake, as the rear flight veered off without pressing home the attack. Later an apology was received for this attack.

By last light NZ Corps was within sight of the entrance to Tebaga Gap, and forward elements were within range of the enemy positions. Indeed, work was started to survey guns in on the permanent grid, but this had to be stopped after dark. Enemy troops were seen withdrawing from the west into the Gap.

Air reconnaissance had reported great activity in the Gap, including digging on a line parallel to PLUM and seven miles north-east. But at last light there was still no sign of any transfer of troops from the Mareth Line itself; indeed there was some movement of troop-carrying vehicles from Matmata south-east to Ksar el Hallouf, which might indicate a strengthening of the line, although it was also possible that this might mean an attack against the line of communication of NZ Corps.

Enemy reports of activities during this day – 20 March – show that 3 Reconnaissance Unit was pushed away to the north-west by KDG, and in order to avoid being cut off withdrew to the southern slopes of Djebel Tebaga. Messe reports that at 5.40 p.m. the Saharan Group was ordered ‘to withdraw’, but it appears that the withdrawal was merely from in front of PLUM into the actual defences, which is confirmed by the movement seen by NZ Corps at last light. Bayerlein states that in the evening of 20 March 164th German Light Division was ordered to move back to the Matmata – Tamezred area. Italian Pistoia Division then extended to its right, taking over the line previously held by 164th. The Germans were still nervous about an advance by Eighth Army from Tamezred eastwards.

But more important to the future of NZ Corps was the warning order, given in the evening of 20 March, that 21st Panzer Division, then some miles south of Gabes, would move to the support of Mannerini.

Delayed Attack

It was on this night of 20–21 March that NZ Corps was to make apparent a serious threat against the Gabes – Matmata road, and on this same night 30th Corps was to commence its offensive against the main Mareth Line. The frontal and the outflanking attacks were the two parts of one combined attack, the full results of which would only be achieved if they were simultaneous. Any hesitation of the one part, until it was seen what was happening on the other, would be certain to produce a check.

It was already apparent that the Army Commander was a little concerned about the timing of the moves of NZ Corps, and short of giving a direct order to push on faster, was trying to speed things up. Past experience had shown that the Germans were very steady and capable of fending off short-range flank pressure while their main body slipped away. A flank attack of vigour and weight was called for, and the obvious course was to attack and capture PLUM, after which no real defensive position existed between NZ Corps and either the road from Matmata to Gabes or the village of El Hamma. The loss of PLUM would clearly threaten the enemy’s line of communication, and must produce some result such as the thinning out of the Mareth Line to strengthen the flank defences.

But to comply with the Army plan, and with the original timings, the attack should go in on the night 20–21 March and the Gap be forced by early on the 21st. New Zealand Corps was at this stage about twelve hours ahead of schedule, and during the evening of 20 March General Freyberg informed Eighth Army that he intended to move on PLUM at first light on 21 March and asked that it should be bombed at 8 a.m., so losing any advantage that might have been gained.

The NZ Corps plan for 21 March was for KDG to move at first light and reconnoitre the whole enemy line, while 8 Armoured Brigade would move at 7 a.m. and endeavour to break through the eastern end of the defences. (It will be clear from the map that NZ Corps was approaching the Gap diagonally from the south-east and not square on.) Divisional Cavalry was to form a right-flank guard. This procedure conformed with the original conception of first attempting to manoeuvre the enemy from PLUM, but the pace of the advance was already lagging and the initial plan for an infantry attack mounted within three hours of being checked was in abeyance.

Divisional Cavalry began to move at 6.10 a.m. and established patrols on a six-mile radius to the north-east and south-east. At its southern point it was in touch with French patrols, which were stretched out on a wide arc as far south as the road to the Hallouf Pass. On the other flank French forces occupied Bir Soltane during the morning without opposition. The situation was still fluid enough for the GOC to give some thought to the rear of the Corps, and 5 Brigade provided a rearguard to take post behind 1st Ammunition Company, the rear unit at the time.

King’s Dragoon Guards reconnoitred well up to the enemy line, despite running into a minefield about four miles south of the centre of the line. The 8th Armoured Brigade advanced towards the eastern end of the enemy position close to Zemlet el Madjel, the western feature of Djebel Melab, found the going very rough and rocky, but made fair progress until it was halted by a combination of mines and shellfire. Notts Yeomanry (Lieutenant-Colonel J. D. Player) on the right flank tried to find a way round the enemy’s left; but although they destroyed a gun and a few trucks they could not make any penetration. The 1st Buffs in support of Notts Yeomanry ran on to a minefield. The 3rd Royal Tanks (Lieutenant-Colonel D. A. H. Silvertop, MC) met strong enemy resistance astride the Kebili road round Point 170, and later in the day probed the enemy defences north of Point 180. Staffs Yeomanry (Lieutenant-Colonel J. A. Eadie, DSO) then came up on the left and managed to advance a little on the north of the Kebili road, but all in all a combination of mines, wire, infantry and anti-tank guns held up the advance, which was somewhat piecemeal.

PLUM was duly bombed at 8 a.m. and many fires started, but this was insufficient to allow the tanks, unsupported by infantry, to get through.3

The rest of 21 March was on the whole a day of reconnaissance, and the GOC spent the day well forward. During the morning, in company with the CRA (Brigadier Weir) and the Commander 6th NZ Brigade (Brigadier Gentry), he was with Tactical Headquarters 8th Armoured Brigade. At first the COs of 25th and 26th Battalions accompanied their brigade commander but it soon became obvious that there would be no early attack, and they went back to their battalions.

The artillery was greatly helped by some useful and accurate trig lists which had been found in Tripoli. Both 4th Field Regiment and 211st Medium Battery were in action in the morning, and later moved up by batteries closer to the enemy positions. They were shelled at intervals, and Mac Troop had nine casualties.

Shortly before midday the GOC received a message from Montgomery saying that 30th Corps had attacked the evening before with some initial success, but that the enemy was apparently going to stand and fight. Montgomery wanted the GOC to make for PEACH (i.e., El Hamma) forthwith, and to be prepared to occupy GRAPE (north-west of Gabes) and from there turn towards Mareth with mobile forces. The GOC replied that he had bumped into an extensive minefield, and that he intended to attack PLUM that night and would then exploit towards PEACH. But time was moving on, and the Corps was now well behind schedule.

By afternoon it had been established that the enemy defences followed the line of an old Roman wall, in front of which the feature Point 201 formed a strongly defended outpost. The wall itself was a line of crumbling rock about eighteen inches to two feet high and two to three feet wide, and was clearly visible across the Gap. Apparently, even in olden days the Romans had defended Tebaga Gap.

It was not until the middle of the afternoon that it was decided that infantry must force a way through the minefield to allow the tanks to push through. Sixth Infantry Brigade would attack, and 8 Armoured Brigade would move through the gap at first light and fan out to right and left, leading a general advance on El Hamma. When this plan was formulated it was believed that Germans had arrived in the line, but this was not correct.

6th NZ Brigade attack

6th NZ Brigade Attack on Point 201 , 21-22 March 1943

General Freyberg warned Brigadier Gentry at 3 p.m. that 6th NZ Brigade would be required to attack that night, and at 5 p.m. when at Point 180, from which Point 201 was visible, he confirmed this. He directed 6 Brigade to capture Point 201 that night with the support of all available artillery, subject however to a restriction to sixty rounds per gun, as there might be a shortage of ammunition. This was over-cautious, for the line of communication was fully operative and, in fact, fifty rounds per gun were distributed at last light to all batteries that had been in action.

Brigadier Gentry had already warned his battalion commanders to meet him at Point 180, and gave his verbal orders for the attack within a few minutes of receiving the GOC’s orders. Reports from forward troops had supported the information already available from air photographs and the artillery targets were given to the CRA, who was present throughout, from these. As ammunition expenditure was to be limited, the bombardment was confined to the enemy’s forward defences. One squadron of Sherman tanks from 3rd RTR was under command of 6th NZ Infantry Brigade.

All arrangements were made by 5.30 p.m., only about twenty minutes after the GOC had given his orders. At 6.35 p.m. the following order was issued from Brigade Headquarters:

Confirming verbal orders. 6th NZ Bde will attack and capture hill feature 201 tonight. Right 26 Bn left 25 Bn inter bn boundary 89 easting grid. start line east and west through 180 hill feature. zero hour 2130 hrs when inf leaves start line. arty programme zero to zero plus 21 minutes on enemy FDLs finishing with one round smoke. thence lift 300 yards for one min thence till zero plus 60 mins on trig 201 at rate one rd per min as guide to adv inf. inf rate of adv to enemy FDLs 100 yards in one and a half mins thence 100 yards in two mins. bde HQ closes present location 2000 hrs move to start line on axis. ADS moves with Bde HQ and establishes 600 yards due south of start line on axis. axis to centre of start line normal provost lights ending with two blue. start line taped. units not taking part in attack remain present area.

Sections were detached from 8th Field Company to clear minefield gaps, one to each attacking battalion, from sixteen to twenty-four yards wide, and about 250 yards from the centre line of the advance, which ran through the summit of Point 201. A provost detachment worked with each section.

At approximately 6.30 p.m. Brigadier Gentry travelled up the axis to see how arrangements for lighting and for marking the start line were progressing. Some distance before the start line the lights on the axis suddenly ended, and the axis could not be found. The liaison officers with the brigade commander were sent off to try and locate the provosts, but after half an hour he decided that zero hour would have to be delayed, and spoke in clear over the radio to the Brigade Major (Major Dawson5) saying that the time on the message then being prepared was to be altered to 2200 hours if ‘Steve’ (the CRA) could change his timing. This postponement of half an hour was in fact carried out.

It transpired that the officer sent with the provosts to mark the axis and start line had moved too fast for the provosts, who had to place lamps, and the latter were left behind. All was well in the end, but it gave Gentry an uncomfortable few minutes.

The order quoted on the previous page is an impressive example of simplicity combined with clarity and brevity, and shows the state of training that had now been reached in 2nd NZ Division. For none but first-class troops could have faced an approach march and a subsequent attack under the timings given.

The 25th and 26th Battalions moved by transport some two miles up the axis and debussed about a mile from the start line, thereafter marching on foot and reaching their positions in good time. One enemy bomber came over while the troops were in vehicles, but his bombs did no damage.

At 10 p.m. the artillery opened fire and the infantry advanced across the start line in brilliant moonlight. The 26th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel D. J. Fountaine) on the right flank had A Company on the right and D on the left, with B in support and C in reserve. The 25th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel T. B. Morten) had C Company on the right and A on the left, with D behind A, and B as reserve.

The enemy did not open fire until the twenty-one minute concentration was over, and by that time the forward companies were ahead of the enemy’s fixed lines, and the advance was not held up. At one point, however, Headquarters 26th Battalion and the reserve company were pinned to the ground by flanking fire, which led the battalion commander to send his Intelligence Officer back to Brigade Headquarters to ask for tank support. But by that time the brigade commander had estimated that the overall position was good and that nothing would be gained by sending up tanks; and in fact, after a brief delay at some wire, where several casualties were suffered, soon after midnight first D Company and then A Company reached its objective and fired the success signal, followed by B Company shortly afterwards. The battalion had gone slightly off course to the east, but this did not affect the successful outcome, which included the taking of many prisoners. From then on until daylight there was only spasmodic shelling of the battalion position.

On the left 25th Battalion had a more adventurous time. C and A Companies pressed on steadily, attacking and passing the first enemy positions, which consisted of fortified and well-dug trenches. Meanwhile D Company, after some initial delay, deployed to the left of A Company and also advanced steadily, capturing among other things a small field-gun position. B Company in reserve was pinned down by fixed-line fire, and its headquarters put out of action. C and A Companies went on towards Point 201, while D Company covered the left flank, and in so doing got amongst enemy transport and guns in an exhilarating action. Finally all three companies consolidated on the northern slopes of 201, while B Company deployed in the rear. Again the battalion had gone slightly to the east and had occupied the whole of Point 201, but this had no effect upon a clear-cut victory.

The attack had shown good planning, a determined approach, and resolute fighting, and was an outstanding success. The casualties were 11 killed and 68 wounded and missing. Thirty-two officers and 817 other ranks were captured, all Italian; and weapons captured included some hundreds of rifles, 32 MMGs, 10 anti-tank guns and 12 75-millimetre infantry guns.

About midnight, when Brigadier Gentry was certain that his attack was successful, he telephoned the GOC and urged that 8 Armoured Brigade should be moved through at once instead of delaying until first light. To this the GOC replied that it might be difficult to move the armour so unexpectedly, but that Gentry had his authority to take a message to the commander 8 Armoured Brigade asking that the tanks should move forthwith through the minefield to exploit the infantry success. No direct message was sent from Corps Headquarters to Brigadier Harvey, who was not on the telephone. Gentry entrusted the mission to the officer commanding the Machine-Gun Company under command (Captain I. S. Moore), who was at Brigade Headquarters at the time. This officer made contact with Brigadier Harvey and gave him the message, which was in the form of a request and not an order. There was some discussion between Harvey and Moore, but as the form in which the message had been sent did not appear to indicate a real urgency, and as there was the normal need for maintenance and rest, Harvey thought that it would be better to adhere to his original orders to move at first light. There is no doubt that if he had received a direct order to push on, the order that the circumstances seem to call for, he would have complied.

The 6th NZ Brigade victory thus remained an isolated one in the midst of a lethargy in the rest of the Corps. And the final fruits of the little victory had yet to be picked. The 8th Field Company had followed up closely and by the early hours of 22 March had filled in an anti-tank ditch and prepared lanes through the minefield. The squadron of tanks under command commenced to move up behind 25 Battalion at 2.30 a.m. They were intended primarily for anti-tank defence in case of failure to get other weapons forward, but before daylight all supporting arms were in place. In the first daylight hours the combined efforts of the various infantry weapons, supported in one case by a tank, caused much damage and led to the surrender of another 400 Italians. There was never a clearer case of moral superiority, and obviously a clean wedge had been driven through PLUM.

In the opinion of some subordinate commanders at the time, and on reviewing the facts today, there can be little doubt that an opportunity was lost, and that if 8 Armoured Brigade had passed through about 3 a.m. it could have disrupted the Italian position, and might well have been through the four miles’ length of gap by daylight. Such an attack presupposed a really offensive design within the Corps, and this was not visible at the time.

The reason for the GOC’s caution may have been that just before 6th NZ Brigade attacked, he had received another message from the Army Commander saying that everything pointed to the likelihood of the enemy being put off balance as the NZ Corps movement developed. He suggested that NZ Corps should reach GRAPE (northwest of Gabes) as soon as possible, should then attack Gabes and destroy all the enemy depots there, and then operate with mobile forces towards Mareth, while holding Gabes securely against any enemy withdrawal northwards. He asked for a forecast when the GOC expected to reach GRAPE.

This was in fact a modified version of the Army Commander’s SIDEWINDOWS alternative, and was a departure from the existing plan, which for 30th Corps was to capture Gabes while NZ Corps bypassed the town. The GOC’s earlier preference, expressed by his reluctance to accept Montgomery’s accelerated timetable and by his insistence that Leese inform him should the 30th Corps attack falter, that the enemy reserve should be committed at Mareth before NZ Corps drove forward from Tebaga, now appeared to reassert itself, and from this perspective it must have seemed that he was being asked to advance alone and absorb single-handed the thrust of all the mobile armour and infantry. It was a situation which presented with immediate insistence, and in a new form, the necessity of deciding whether to risk all on Montgomery’s judgment and chance a serious encounter with the bulk of 1st Italian Army, or whether to go slowly and carefully and wait until NZ Corps should not be alone in the field. The point that success on the Mareth front had always been dependent on the speed with which NZ Corps turned the flank at the Tebaga switch line seems again to have been submerged in a wave of caution. Freyberg replied that it was too early to prophesy, but that if the 6 Brigade attack was successful the Corps would operate towards PEACH (El Hamma). There was no mention of GRAPE or of the other tasks suggested to him.

The fighting on the front of NZ Corps for the next four days – 22 to 25 March inclusive – shows a similarity from day to day, inching forward in the centre and flanks, with exploratory reconnaissance on either flank. The total advance in the centre was of the order of only 1500 yards, for by the evening of 22 March, 21st Panzer Division was on the scene, and on 23 March 164th German Light Division had also arrived. These troops were a different proposition from the Italians, and any chance of a speedy breakthrough had gone.

The activities of NZ Corps during daylight on 21 March – the various reconnaissances – were enough to induce the enemy to speed up the moves of 21st Panzer and 164th German Light Divisions. About 9.30 a.m. 21st Panzer Division was ordered to move to the area just north of Zemlet el Madjel, and later in the day 164th German Light Division was relieved by Pistoia Division and was moved back to a central position on the Gabes – Kebili road some ten miles from Gabes. The 21st Panzer Division moved with increasing speed as the day went on, with the general idea of attacking through Point 201 along the line of the road from Gabes to Kebili. At this time 6th NZ Brigade had not captured Point 201.

The Germans were still reporting the attacking formation as 10th Armoured Division, and had not identified NZ Corps

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22 March

At first light 8th Armoured Brigade advanced with Staffs Yeomanry on the right, Notts Yeomanry on the left, and 3rd Royal Tanks in reserve. The brigade made little progress, being much hampered by enemy artillery fire from both flanks, including fire from 88-millimetre guns. Staffs Yeomanry established a footing in the right of the enemy line about Point 247, knocked out at least one tank and took 100 prisoners, and for its pains was bombed by our own aircraft. Notts Yeomanry passed through the minefield and penetrated to the north of Point 201, but was heavily shelled and lost two tanks. During the advance of 8th Armoured Brigade, Colonel Kellett, DSO, second-in-command of the brigade, was killed, actually while talking to General Freyberg, who as usual was well to the front.

Intelligence reports the previous evening had foreshadowed the arrival of three troops of 88-millimetre guns, and now proof had come that the report was correct. Moreover, by midday ground observers reported eleven enemy tanks north-east of Point 201, and later another twenty tanks were reported a few miles farther back. Later still, air reconnaissance confirmed that this was 21st Panzer Division.

In the early afternoon there was a series of tank engagements at long range, punctuated by enemy artillery fire from the foothills of Djebel Tebaga. The RAF made several raids in support of NZ Corps during the day, and on one occasion some forty aircraft bombed a group of tanks estimated at forty and claimed hits on thirty-two, including the destruction of nine.

Divisional Cavalry also moved forward through the minefield with orders to clear enemy positions, including the enemy guns on the Djebel Tebaga slopes, that were holding up the tanks, but enemy fire, both from guns and tanks, was too strong and little progress was made. They did, however, capture one troop of 77-millimetre guns and took prisoner 11 officers and 135 other ranks, all Italians.

King’s Dragoon Guards spent most of the day in and around Zemlet el Madjel, but in the afternoon one squadron was sent to try to find a passage through Djebel Tebaga. The squadron reached the top of the range but reported that the northern face was sheer and impassable.

During the day both 4th and 6th Field Regiments, and the anti-tank batteries with 6th NZ Brigade, moved forward, for enemy targets were getting out of range. The counter-battery work by the Corps artillery (111 Field Regiment, RA, 64 Medium Regiment, RA, and 4 and 6 Field Regiments, NZA) was effective enough to quieten the enemy guns from time to time.

A number of enemy air raids on our gun positions during the day caused no damage, but bombs did cause damage and casualties in the forward medical units. Towards the end of the day it was thought better to move 6th Brigade Advanced Dressing Station to a quieter position.

The ground occupied by 25th and 26th Battalions was kept under heavy enemy fire, and at midday it was bombed. The 25th Battalion had ten casualties from shellfire. In the early evening 6th NZ Infantry Brigade began to ease forward and occupy the ground gained during the day by the tanks, and as part of this move 25th Battalion took over a little of the frontage of 26th Battalion east of the Kebili – El Hamma road, so allowing the latter to stretch out to the north and east. The 25th Battalion moved without incident, and deployed the reserve company on its left flank. But when B Company of 26th Battalion began to move towards high ground on the right flank, a radio message was received saying that enemy tanks and Italian troops in unknown strengths were advancing up a wadi on the other side. The company took cover at the north-west end of the feature and waited for the position to clarify, the Italians being visible about 100 yards away. Their supporting machine-gun platoon (4th Platoon of 2nd MG Company), thinking that B Company had occupied the feature but having no means of wireless communication with the company commander, moved up to consolidate. The result was that the platoon, under Lieutenant Titchener, ran into the Italians, and while both sides were surprised, the machine-gunners recovered first and rounded up thirty-five Italians and captured intact four 75-millimetre guns and two machine-gun posts.

The enemy vehicles advancing on the feature were then engaged by 8th Armoured Brigade, and the enemy advance petered out. It appears most unlikely that these vehicles were in fact tanks; Lieutenant Titchener himself disclaims their presence, saying that they were more likely to be tracked infantry carriers.

The remainder of 26th Battalion moved forward unopposed to their new positions some 500 to 1000 yards ahead. By the end of the day the enemy was securely established on the high ground to the north-west and the east of PLUM, and had cross-observation on all movement over the ground between Djebel Melab and Djebel Tebaga. There was every sign that he intended to stay there.

The Enemy – 22 March

Following 6th NZ Brigade’s successful attack on the night 21–22 March, 21st Panzer Division was ordered to counter-attack. This the division did about 11 a.m., with tanks leading, but bad going and NZ Corps ‘ shellfire delayed the advance, and it was soon clear that the attack could not succeed that day. The division therefore took up a line which ran roughly north-west and south-east some 3500 yards short of (i.e., north-east of) Point 201. It was then still hoped to recapture the feature the next day.

About 10.30 a.m. 164th German Light Division was ordered to move to the Tebaga front immediately; but after some further discussion it took up an intermediate position round Hir el Assouad, some miles east of PLUM and on the north-east slopes of Djebel Melab. (The enemy still feared an advance by Eighth Army through the passes east of Djebel Melab.) However, in the evening 164th Light Division was told to join 21st Panzer in the line facing the enemy, as it was now apparent to the Germans that the greater danger was on the Tebaga front. Both divisions were to be under Mannerini’s command.

That same evening there were discussions between the commanders of 21st Panzer and 164th German Light Divisions, and between them and Mannerini. They concluded that another attack on Point 201 could not succeed, and that their only course was to go on the defensive.

NZ Corps – 23 March

Activities on 23 March bear close similarity to those of 22 March – a cautious edging along the flanks combined with attempts to ascertain if a wider outflanking was possible, and probing here and there at the enemy line. The GOC became increasingly concerned about the line of communication, not only to the south-east, but also to the west. Altogether the day was an unsatisfactory one.

The 8th Armoured Brigade had no particular success to record during the day after attempting to work along both flanks. The CO of 3rd Royal Tanks, Lieutenant-Colonel D. A. H. Silvertop, was wounded and evacuated and the second-in-command died of wounds. Divisional Cavalry patrolled the foothills of Djebel Tebaga, took many prisoners and destroyed a number of abandoned guns.

During the night 22–23 March the enemy filtered back on to the northern slopes of ‘Titchener Hill’, and in the end the enemy fire was heavy enough to force the greater part of our troops to retire, leaving only observation parties on the top of the hill.

Both 25th and 26th Battalions were spasmodically shelled. Three enemy air raids caused no damage, but at 9.20 a.m. the RAF bombed and strafed our troops, mainly in 26th Battalion area. This was too much, and by arrangement indication marks were erected in the area – the letter ‘A’ in 26 Battalion, ‘E’ on Point 201, and ‘H’ in 25 Battalion area.

In the morning the CO 24th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly) with his company commanders reconnoitred 26th Battalion area with a view to relieving that battalion the following night, but at midday the GOC decided that 24th Battalion would probably have to go into the line on the left of 25th Battalion to extend the front, and a reconnaissance was then made of the new area.

The uncertain movements of 10th Panzer Division now became a complicating factor. After its Medenine rebuff this division had gone to an area north of Gabes, but on the renewed activity of 2nd US Corps , it had moved towards Gafsa. It was reasonable to assume that 10th Panzer Division was to oppose the Americans, who on 22 March entered Maknassy, which was only some 40 miles from the coast between Gabes and Sfax. The threat to the enemy’s ‘neck’ was now becoming really dangerous.

But late on 22 March Eighth Army informed NZ Corps that 10th Panzer Division was believed to be round Gabes, and that there was a chance that it would be used to support 21st Panzer Division against NZ Corps. This may have seemed a possibility to Intelligence Eighth Army, but in a personal telegram to General Freyberg, sent in the early hours of 23 March and yet to be discussed, Montgomery said inter alia, ‘10th Panzer Division engaged in Gafsa area’. This conflict of views explains why NZ Corps early on 23 March wirelessed Eighth Army, ‘Require Tactical Reconnaissance locate 10th Panzer Division and attempt follow movements’. A reply came from Eighth Army almost immediately: ‘Indications 10th Pz Div more concerned American threat but will watch with Strategical Reconnaissance today.’

However, Freyberg was still not reassured about the movements of 10th Panzer Division, and in mid-morning ordered 5th NZ Infantry Brigade to take up defensive positions facing south and south-west on a line whose centre was some seven miles south-west from Point 201. By 6 p.m. the brigade had moved from its halting place of 20 March and was in position with 23rd Battalion on the right, 28th (Maori) Battalion in the centre, and 21st Battalion on the left on a frontage of about 17,000 yards. The 5th Field Regiment reverted to the command of the CRA and was deployed on the right flank under the Zemlet el Madjel foothills, near other artillery units, where it could support 5th NZ Brigade if necessary.

The brigade was now facing south-west and was therefore in position to resist an enemy coming from that direction. To attack in this way would entail for 10th Panzer Division a march round the north and west of Djebel Tebaga, which does not seem at all likely in view of the distance it must travel and the shortage of petrol. To deploy 5th NZ Brigade in this way was thus to take an extreme measure of defence.

The Corps artillery was very active during 23 March, the accuracy of the fire being attested by prisoners. Between 5 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. ten series of concentrations were put down on known enemy batteries and defended localities, tasks in which the Bofors guns of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment took part. The enemy artillery was also active, helped by the good observation from the flanks, in particular against the main axis and the minefield gaps.

Several enemy fighter-bomber attacks took place during the day but caused no damage. Between 3 and 3.30 p.m. our own tankbusters and fighters put in their first attack, making use of the new indication letter marks. From ground observation and flash-spotting intersections the attacks were made in the areas desired, and many fires were seen.

At last light 24th Battalion moved to occupy the positions reconnoitred on the left flank to the north-west of the Kebili – El Hamma road. The troops were in their positions without interference by 10 p.m.

Eight lanes through the minefields were cleared by 8th Field Company, with assistance from sections of 6th and 7th Field Companies, and marked with cairns and lights. Losses in this task were four killed and four wounded. The 6th Field Company lifted from four to five hundred mines, and another party of engineers began work on a landing strip for the air evacuation centre, sited about ten miles south of Point 201. This was completed on 24 March, and from it about 40 per cent of total evacuations were made by air, thanks to some steady work under difficult conditions by the RAF pilots.

The activities on 23 March ended in some slight gains on both flanks. A further 506 prisoners were captured, making a total of over 2100, nearly all Italians.

The Right Flank on 23 March

‘L’ Force of the French Group had in the meantime been patrolling in the northern foothills of Zemlet el Madjel, often in co-operation with KDG. The ground was very broken and hilly, and any advance could only be slow, but as mentioned earlier, the enemy was unusually sensitive about a debouchment northwards from Djebel Melab, and the activities of ‘L’ Force had engaged his attention.

The force had been working westwards towards the right of 26th Battalion, but the GOC now intended that it should turn more to the north towards Points 242 and 209, helped by KDG and accompanied by FOOs from 6 Field Regiment. This meant that ‘L’ Force would be finally committed to an advance, and its earlier task of flank protection to the lines of communication would no longer be possible. The FFF Column was still on this duty, and for the time being came directly under Rear Headquarters NZ Corps, commanded by Colonel Crump , the CRASC. In the view of the GOC this was too light a force for the duty, as he considered the lines of communication might still be attacked. He therefore asked Eighth Army for an additional armoured car regiment.

This again was over-insurance, for by this time the whereabouts of the panzer divisions was known – 15th Panzer Division at Mareth, 21th Panzer Division at Tebaga, and 10th Panzer Division to the north-west of Gabes – and the move of 164th German Light Division out of the Mareth Line had also been noted. This last move left Italian Pistoia Division on the right of the line, and it was most unlikely that Pistoia should suddenly burst out to the south across the Matmata Hills. The truth was not that the right flank had become more vulnerable, but that the ‘inching ahead’ tactics were swallowing up ‘L’ Force, KDG and Divisional Cavalry, once used as flank guards. These tactics were proving as absorptive of troops as would have one concentrated attack.

However, the request was still-born, for at 4 a.m. on the morning of 23 March General Montgomery sent a message to General Freyberg that was in effect an answer:

Most Secretpersonal for General Freyberg from Army Comd. 30th Corps thrust meeting increased resistance and have decided hold tightly there for the present. Instead will reinforce your thrust with 1st Armd Div and this increased strength should enable you to push on and reach Gabes. 15th Pz Div closely engaged on my front. 10 Pz Div engaged in Gafsa area. Troops available to oppose you are 21st Pz Div and have reason to believe certain elements of this div have gone to Gafsa front. Must also expect more of 164th Light Div to oppose you. For maintenance and other reasons essential have Corps HQ on your flank and am sending Horrocks to take charge. Am sure you will understand. You and he will work well together and should achieve decisive results. Horrocks and recce parties should reach you tomorrow about 12 noon. 10th Corps to take over when 1st Armd Div have arrived probably afternoon 25 March.

The Main Mareth Front

Operations had not gone as planned on the front of 30th Corps. Although the desired penetration had been achieved, the enemy had been able to counter-attack. The attack commenced at 10.30 p.m. on the 20th, at which time 50th (Northumbrian) Division and 23rd Armoured Brigade passed through 51 (H) Division between Mareth village and the sea. The initial task was to cross Wadi Zigzaou, a formidable obstacle with its natural hazards intensified by the enemy’s minefields, ditches and wire. The enemy line was held in the main by Italians, but with 90th German Light Division strengthening certain sectors, and with 15 Panzer Division in immediate reserve.

The attackers crossed the wadi in places, though with difficulty, and even then the deep and steep-sided nature of the wadi, and the enfilade fire encountered, sweeping easily across the narrow front, made the foothold on the far bank precarious. The gains were held on 21 March, and were extended during the night 21–22, but on 22 March there was heavy rain and the wadi crossing became more difficult than ever, and for armour and wheeled vehicles wellnigh impossible. Bad weather prevented the air force from interfering with the enemy’s preparations for a counter-attack, which was duly delivered by 15 Panzer Division in the afternoon of 22 March. Much of the bridgehead was recaptured by the enemy, for conditions made it impossible to get more than a handful of tanks and anti-tank guns across the wadi. By 2 a.m. on 23 March it was known that the results of the counter-attack were serious. But, on the other hand, Montgomery considered that the enemy was now committed to offensive action on his eastern flank.

He therefore took the decision which has been given in the message quoted above. It was intended that the move of Headquarters 10th Corps and 1st Armoured Division should start after dark on 23 March, in the hope that a fresh offensive could be launched at Tebaga on 25 March. At the same time 30th Corps, strengthened by 7th Armoured Division from 10th Corps and by 4th Indian Division from Army Reserve, was to launch a new attack in the centre towards Toujane and Zeltene, in an area beyond the artificial defences of the Mareth Line, where, in effect, a gap had already been left by the departure of 164th German Light Division to Tebaga. One advantage of this attack was that the lateral road from Medenine through the Hallouf Pass would be opened and the two wings of the army brought closer together. The 4th Indian Division was entrusted with this special attack, to commence after dark on 23 March. Thirtieth Corps would then have 50th, 51st and 7th Armoured Divisions to hold the enemy in the Mareth Line proper, while 4th Indian Division undertook what Montgomery calls a ‘short hook’ round the line.

By the evening of 23 March all troops were withdrawn across Wadi Zigzaou and the whole of the bridgehead given up. Tenth Corps, consisting of Corps Headquarters, 1st Armoured Division (2 nd Armoured Brigade and 7th Motor Brigade), 69th Medium Regiment, RA, with corps engineers and anti-aircraft artillery, moved from Medenine soon after midnight on 23–24 March, taking the direct road to Foum Tatahouine. With it moved 36th Survey Battery, less the detachments already with NZ Corps.

NZ Corps winds up PUGILIST

While 10th Corps was on its way to Tebaga, the nature of the fighting on the front of NZ Corps remained unchanged. On 23 March 164th German Light Division came into the line on the right of 21st Panzer Division, with a sector including Point 209 to Djebel Tebaga, and 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance Units, acting as a group, patrolled the area north of the Djebel between the mountains and the Chotts. Apparently the enemy was as apprehensive of an advance on our part round the north of the Djebel as Freyberg had been of an enemy attack by the same route.

The two German divisions were to some degree mixed up, a common occurrence, and those Italians still fit for fighting were sandwiched in between German units. The 220th Reconnaissance Unit of 164th German Light Division was away watching the passes over the hills east of Djebel Melab. In the words of 164th German Light this was to ‘stiffen 21st Italian Corps’ (the Italians on the right of the Mareth defences), but 21st Panzer Division, not so polite, said it was to ‘bolster up the Italians’. The advance of ‘L’ Force had borne some fruit, for 164th German Light Division reported certain successes by them in Zemlet el Madjel.

At 3 p.m. on 23 March command of the whole enemy front passed to Major-General von Liebenstein, GOC 164th German Light Division. It is recorded that Mannerini was given ‘new orders’, but what they were is not known. He disappeared from the Tebaga front.

The enemy line was now about three miles north-east of Point 201, but on the east flank curved to the south to take in Point 184, and from there ran into the peaks of Zemlet el Madjel. Between the opposing FDLs was a ‘no-man’s land’ of some width. The enemy took full advantage of the slopes of Djebel Tebaga, and in the afternoon the headquarters of both 164th Light and 21 Panzer Divisions moved there so that they could overlook the front.

Events on the Corps front on 24 and 25 March do not justify recounting in detail, except for certain special activities. The 8th Armoured Brigade continued to advance slowly on the left flank along the slopes of Djebel Tebaga. Divisional Cavalry also operated there, and spent some time trying to find a good track through the Djebel, but had no better fortune than had KDG. The object of these reconnaissances is not clear, for it would have been wild optimism to think of launching an attack by that route. The most that could be achieved was an assurance that the enemy could not come that way either.

The Desert Air Force gradually stepped up its support and on 24 March delivered two strong attacks. The first, by forty-seven Kittyhawks and twelve Hurricane tank-busters, destroyed about twenty vehicles of various sorts, and left many others in flames, including at least four tanks. The second attack was specifically directed against the enemy tanks which were opposing 8th Armoured Brigade. Six tanks were destroyed and one damaged, and the attack led the GOC to send a message of congratulation to the Air Officer Commanding. Our aircraft ran into heavy flak, but the six aircraft which were hit were all landed within our lines. For both attacks the forward troops burned yellow smoke to indicate the front line. During the second attack the enemy burned yellow smoke as well, but the pilots were not deceived.

‘L’ Force and KDG continued to operate together in Zemlet el Madjel, the latter reporting frankly that the ground was not suitable for armoured cars. By nightfall ‘L’ Force was in touch with the enemy on Point 354, the highest point. During the day, on the instructions of the GOC, Brigadier Kippenberger went with General Leclerc to this point in order to give an opinion whether or not an attack could be made by 5th NZ Brigade round the enemy’s left flank. His opinion was that it was possible but difficult, and the difficulty applied specially to transport and supporting weapons, which meant that consolidation might be costly.

It is difficult to believe that there was ever a real intention to attack by this route, which at best was over ground quite unsuitable for any rapid action, but by this time it was abundantly clear that the GOC was not in favour of a strong central thrust with his present forces, and was looking for some way round. However, by the time Kippenberger got back to Corps Headquarters, Lieutenant-General Horrocks had arrived, and events were fast moving to something altogether bigger.

The three battalions of 6th NZ Brigade had on the whole an uneventful time. There were a number of enemy air raids of varying intensity, but damage was negligible and casualties were slight. The only real excitement was a triviality – the appearance in the late afternoon of 24 March of a lorry and motor-cycle on the El Hamma-Kebili road. Men on Point 201 stood up in their trenches to watch the approach, but machine-gunners spoilt the fun by opening up at 2000 yards’ range, whereupon the motor-cyclist disappeared, apparently wounded, and the truck turned round and went off in a cloud of dust. Driving into the enemy’s lines was an occasional occurrence to both sides.

On the night 24–25 March an attempt was made to capture Point 184, which gave good observation over our positions. At 7.30 p.m., just before the moon rose, D Company of 26th Battalion attacked silently, but the two leading platoons ran into heavy machine-gun and mortar fire, and found the feature steeper than had been expected. Fire called from our own guns silenced the enemy mortars, but the attack was not persisted in, and the company withdrew. It was clear that Point 184 could not be stormed by two platoons.

Throughout this period supplies were coming forward regularly from the New Zealand Field Maintenance Centre, which until 22 March was still at Bir Amir on the eastern side of Wilder’s Gap. On that day the FMC was moved forward to Bir Soltane, which shortened the haul for the Corps transport and transferred the burden to the Army authorities. Lack of supplies at no stage hindered operations, not even the ever-increasing demands for gun ammunition – which speaks volumes for the combined efforts of the NZASC and the RASC units supporting NZ Corps.

The Enemy

On 24 March the enemy appreciated that on the main Mareth front the British forces, especially the armoured forces, were being thinned out, and that the main attack would move to ‘the southwest front’. Thus 15th Panzer Division was moved back to Hir Zouitinat (13 miles south-west of Gabes), where it could support either front and where it was later identified by air reconnaissance. Some nervousness was shown over the advance of 4th Indian Division in the centre and the Italian forces in the area were warned about the importance of blocking Hallouf Pass.

The two divisions in the Tebaga line (21st Panzer and 164th German Light) reported various NZ Corps activities during the day, including the air attacks. The enemy by now had no illusions about the final outcome of the Tebaga operations, but was determined to impose delay as long as possible. This attitude was apparently shared by von Arnim, who visited the front during the morning, and decided that the time had come to withdraw into the Akarit position – the Gabes Gap – commencing that night, 24–25 March. Messe pointed out that he did not have enough MT for so fast a move, and would have to delay twenty-four hours, but did not dispute the orders otherwise for there were still bitter memories of the way in which the non-motorised Italian troops had been left stranded at Alamein. However, later in the day Kesselring also visited the front, came to the conclusion that the situation was not really serious, and persuaded Messe to tell von Arnim that he was going to hit back, and did not consider the withdrawal necessary. But von Arnim adhered to his decision, agreeing only to a postponement so that the withdrawal would now start on the night 25–26 March.

Change of Plan

In the afternoon of 24 March the Army Commander made proposals to Lieutenant-General Freyberg for the future, and shortly after the receipt of his message (at the most an hour or so) Lieutenant-General Horrocks arrived to discuss them. So although the piecemeal activities of NZ Corps continued into 25 March, Operation PUGILIST was now over, and its place taken by something new.

In itself PUGILIST had not been a success. On 30th Corps’ front the check was disappointing to all concerned, not least to Montgomery. But without exception they can be grateful that he did not persist with the attack on First World War lines, and that he changed his plan so speedily. It was a bold decision, all the more marked in that it was taken about 2.30 a.m. after two days of strain.

The point naturally arises whether a move by 10th Corps, the Army Reserve, had been considered at the planning stage. A study of the facts as known at the time shows that 10 Corps was intended to exploit success only on 30 Corps’ front. It is true that de Guingand, Montgomery’s Chief of Staff, had, as an orthodox task, initiated some preliminary staff planning on the possible move of 10 Corps to Tebaga. Such planning must have been very sketchy, however, for the traffic confusion with 4 Indian Division during the early stages of the eventual move of 10th Corps pointed to an absence of study or planning, and lack of maintenance arrangements resulted in 10th Corps, on arrival at Tebaga, having to depend on NZ Corps for supplies. Horrocks himself had no knowledge of the possibility of a move to Tebaga, although there had been many conferences, and much planning, over the various alternatives on the 30th Corps front.

A fact of greater importance, however, is that 10th Corps was so positioned that it could be transferred to Tebaga, where no more than a lodgement had been made. Yet PUGILIST had achieved something. Apart from its attrition of the enemy, a route avoiding the hazards of the Wadi Zigzaou and the fixed defences of the Mareth Line had been established. The most important feature, Point 201, in the entrance to Tebaga Gap had been secured, and a force of all arms threatened the enemy’s flank, and indeed had impelled him to react and redispose his divisions. PUGILIST provided the practicable line of attack for further effort, and although inconclusive everywhere, in itself it gave the opportunity for a second stage, now to begin.


Chapter 10: SUPERCHARGE – a Victory

IN the early afternoon of 24 March General Freyberg received proposals from the Army Commander, first by message, and then in outline by liaison officer, for a large-scale attack on 25 March to blast a way through Tebaga Gap and allow armour to deploy in the open country beyond. Montgomery’s plan included a bombing attack heavier than usual on the enemy on the night 24–25 March, and preliminary low-level attacks for two or three hours to disorganise the defence. This would require maximum assistance with guiding lights for the air force. Zero hour would be about 3 p.m. so that the westering sun would be shining behind the attacking troops. (The enemy on the north-east and Eighth Army on the south-west was something new in desert fighting.) Montgomery asked for an immediate reply as to whether Freyberg agreed in principle, and said that in the meantime he was going ahead with all preparations at his end.

To this Freyberg replied that a night landmark would be arranged and that there would be no difficulty in staging an attack, but he would signal at length on the general situation and would suggest alternative plans. While he was in the course of preparing this full reply Lieutenant-General Horrocks arrived.

The change in command upset General Freyberg. He thought that in every way the correct answer would have been to leave him in command, even if it was necessary to send him a fresh corps headquarters. He was senior to Horrocks. But from Montgomery’s viewpoint the problem was straightforward. Tenth Corps was the Army Reserve. The Corps was complete with commander and staff, was fully briefed, and one of its divisions and some of the corps troops were to move with it, so that it was obvious that the simplest thing to do was to allow it to absorb the troops already on the spot and proceed with the battle, to which it would give fresh impetus. It will be remembered that NZ Corps had no separate corps headquarters, and it has been suggested that a bare divisional headquarters might be tried too hard if suddenly it had to control double its existing force. In fact Horrocks said after his arrival that it was the headquarters staff of 10th Corps that was wanted more than the Corps Commander.

There is some evidence that Montgomery knew that there might be difficulties, and certainly both Horrocks and de Guingand were aware of the prickly nature of the situation. Between them all they did their best to make things easier. Horrocks and de Guingand agreed that all messages sent from Army Headquarters should go to both commanders, and Montgomery was careful in the wording of his various telegrams and letters. But it is small wonder that Horrocks sensed a frigid atmosphere when he arrived. One must have sympathy with him, for he was innocent of any offence. Freyberg was determined to make sure that no newcomer should intrude in the handling of 2nd NZ Division, and was grim, firm, and not at all forthcoming.

In his message early on 23 March Montgomery laid down that 10 Corps was to take over when 1st British Armoured Division arrived, probably in the afternoon of 25 March. After some discussion between the two commanders, they agreed that Horrocks should assume command at 6 p.m. on 25 March, that Freyberg should be responsible for the detailed planning of the forthcoming operation, and that, to all intents and purposes, Horrocks’s command would be effective after the break-in.

There is a difference of opinion between Horrocks and Freyberg over the responsibility for the message later sent to Montgomery, numbered 503, a draft of which was already in existence when Horrocks arrived. It had his concurrence, and it must be assumed that he agreed with it, although it is not difficult to see that the commander on the spot had for the moment the advantage. The message was sent ‘From Generals Freyberg and Horrocks’.

It described the bottleneck at PLUM, and said that hitherto the policy of NZ Corps had been to work along the high ground on the flanks and reduce the enemy’s observation over the gap. Alternative courses for future action were then given:

  1. Carry on as we are going until we can force gap and pass 1st Armd Div through. This should be possible in from 5 to 7 days.

  2. Carry on as at present and pass 1st Armd Div round Kebili to attack Hamma from west, thus further stretching enemy. This could probably develop night 27/28.

  3. Carry out blitz attack by daylight with 8th Armd Bde supported by maximum air and five arty regts. This would be very costly but might break through.

In our opinion second course is far the best and is most certain to produce quick results and minimum losses.

Of these three possibilities, the first would obviously take too long. The second plan has an air of unreality, for it meant a further 60 miles’ march for 1st Armoured Division and would interpose an impassable range of mountains between the two wings of the outflanking force, and lose the virtue of concentration and of taking full advantage of a preponderance in tanks, guns, infantry, and air support. Moreover, a fresh line of communications round the west end of Djebel Tebaga could only add to the difficulties of supply, for when 10th Corps did arrive on the Tebaga front it had not completed its administration arrangements and leant heavily on NZ Corps for its first issues of supplies and ammunition. The third course more accorded with the Army Commander’s suggestion.

There is difficulty in determining the exact order of the communications which passed at this time, for it appears that Montgomery’s next letter was in fact written before he had received message 503, but after the return to Army Headquarters of his liaison officer. These liaison officers were all specially selected by him and formed a corps d’élite. They brought to him the atmosphere they found in the formations they visited as well as battle reports, and in this case it is possible that the liaison officer sensed that there was still a reluctance on NZ Corps’ front to thrust with full force. Whether or not that is the case, the fact remains that the letter given below shows that Montgomery was several laps ahead of anyone else in his thinking about the future. The relevant parts of the letter are as follows:

"I want to speed up your thrust as much as possible, 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 plan would be as follows: –

a. Continuous bombing by Wellingtons and night bombers on night D-1/D.

b. Intensive artillery shelling for say one hour before zero. Smoke etc on high ground on flanks and/or to cover mine lifting.

c. Air cover and attacks by fighters on any movement to and from the battle area.

I do not believe that any enemy could stand up to such treatment, and you would, after it, burst through the defile quite easily and get to El Hamma and Gabes.

I believe it would be another SUPERCHARGE which would do the trick like we did it with SUPERCHARGE at Alamein. The army and air staffs are working it out and we can lay it on if you agree you will accept it. Date: the earlier the better. I would like D day to be tomorrow 25 March, 1st Armoured Division to be up by then, ready to exploit success on 26 March.

I think you would get surprise, as the enemy thinks we always attack at night. … The RAF will play 100%. Let us call it SUPERCHARGE, and give me a date for D Day.

Enclosed with this letter was one from de Guingand, written after a conference with the AOC. After saying that the night strafe was to be intensified, he went on:

b. The Kittybombers will now carry out an intensive bombing and strafing period for about two hours before your attack goes in and will also operate during the attack itself dealing with any movement in the battle area and on the roads leading to the battle area.

c. By keeping quiet in the morning we have a better chance of obtaining surprise and if we do not start the Kittybombers sooner than zero minus two hours the enemy should not have time to withdraw his air forces from the central Tunisia front. We would be grateful if you would let us have the most complete picture of the enemy defensive lay-out as you see it, and any details of your plan, start line etc.

When message 503 did reach Montgomery, he cannot have found it at all helpful, and must have been confirmed in his view that he must take a firm grip2 of the forthcoming battle himself. In the event the outline plan was his alone, although the detailed planning of the break-in was Freyberg’s, a situation which does not support Freyberg’s later view that Montgomery went into too much detail and interfered with the freedom of action of his subordinates.

Generals Freyberg and Horrocks then replied, first, that they were considering SUPERCHARGE, but that it could not be carried out before 26 March as 1st Armoured Division would not be ready until then; and then later that SUPERCHARGE would definitely take place on 26 March. Air communication and adequate signal arrangements enabled all these messages and letters to pass during the afternoon of 24 March. Montgomery’s acknowledgment to this last telegram from Freyberg and Horrocks is the first to be dated 25 March. In it he expressed his delight at the news and, inter alia, said that he did not like their second course as it would split the outflanking force.

This exchange of telegrams and letters was in effect summarised in a letter sent by de Guingand on 25 March. It reads in part:

"My Dear Generals,

(I feel as if I am writing to the old combination Hindenburg and Ludendorff!) This letter gives you the Army Commander’s views as to future operations.

1. Supercharge is virtually your course No. 13 with stronger and more intimate air support than we have ever tried before.

2. The Army Commander wants you to go 100% for Supercharge and produce a simple cut and dried plan and we will give you the maximum air support possible.

3. The Army Commander stresses the need to keep your joint resources concentrated and not dispersed; that is why he did not like the Kebili project as it placed a mountain range between the two divisions.

4. He feels sure that if we break into this front facing you, you can take considerable risks and, by pushing on deep, the enemy will be forced to pull back from the hills.

5. {Omitted – estimate of enemy morale, believed low.}

6. {Omitted – estimate of enemy morale, believed low.}

7. We are sending over Darwin. … to help you tie up the air support for Supercharge. The RAF have ordered an armoured car to report to NZ HQ and it is proposed that Darwin should be located ‘cheek by jowl’ with comd 8 Armd Bde or whoever else is in a position to get the latest information as to how the air support is working. It is important that he should be able to see the battle area from a good OP, and he will then be able to give the pilots the low-down as to how they are doing. It is important of course that he does keep in the closest touch with one of our commanders as he must have an up-to-date picture. Sitting back here it would look as if 8 Armd Bde is the right location.

8. (a) Omitted – list of Spitfire and Kittyhawk squadrons.

(b) The length of time they can operate over area continuously depends on the Spitfire Sqns. These can operate continuously for two hours. Therefore you can expect continuous Kitty-bomber attacks throughout this two-hours period at the density of two squadrons.

(c) The important thing will be to decide on the correct timing. We feel that it might be best to start this intensive air effort about zero minus 30 minutes. This should thoroughly disorganise the defence at the psychological moment and allow the fighter bombers to continue supporting the attack during the most difficult period. You may, however, feel you would like a longer preparation beforehand but it is probable that your artillery will be able to deal with this.

(d) It will be most important to give the air force as soon as possible the maximum information as to your plan of attack and the areas and centre of enemy resistance guns etc that you wish to be attacked.

9. The Air Force are going flat out on this low strafing. It may be very expensive owing to flak and enemy opposition, but they have agreed to cooperate wholeheartedly because the Army Commander has told them it is the big thing in this stage of the campaign. They will not be able to stage such an intensive effort two days running.

It will be seen from the above that the air forces intended to make an all-out effort for a low-flying blitz, something new to Eighth Army. The risks were great, but the results might be immense.

Years later de Guingand pointed out that although Broadhurst had willingly taken on the assignment, there were those, some of high rank, who did not agree that he had been correct in doing so. The accepted doctrine was that the primary task of the Air Force was to defeat the enemy air force, and that too close co-operation with the ground forces would impede this task, particularly if risk of losses was high.

Preparations on 25 March

March the 25th was a day of conferences both formal and informal, and of planning on every level. The first formal conference was held with brigadiers and heads of services at 7.30 a.m., with General Horrocks present. All the details which later appeared in the operation orders were discussed, but two decisions were made for activities preceding the main attack. First, 5th NZ Infantry Brigade was to capture Point 184 that evening (25 March), as the feature overlooked the lying-up area for the infantry; and secondly, all rearrangements of the existing front, including 5th NZ Infantry Brigade’s taking over a sector of the front, were to be completed during the forthcoming hours of darkness. The troops were then to dig in and lie up in concealment all day on 26 March until zero hour. The tanks of 8th Armoured Brigade were also to lie up on that day, concealed in low ground running across the Gap behind the Roman Wall.

There was considerable discussion on the most suitable time for zero hour, which was chosen at the request of General Horrocks and of Major-General Briggs, commander of 1st Armoured Division. It was the latest hour possible which would give 1st Armoured Division time to pass through the forward troops before dark and reach an area in which to lie up until the moon rose, at 11 p.m. The timings for the whole operation were fixed with the intention of obtaining the maximum benefit from the sun, which would greatly limit enemy observation, consistent with the estimated times for the NZ Corps break-in and the move of 1st Armoured Division. Zero hour for NZ Corps was settled for 4 p.m., and the final objective was to be reached two hours later. At this point, 6 p.m., 1st Armoured Division would begin to move up through the battlefield, and by last light, about 7.30 p.m., would be in its lying-up area some five miles from the start line. Here it would laager until the moon rose and then continue on to El Hamma.

General Freyberg thought at the time that 1st Armoured Division fixed a late timing for its moonlight move, and events were to lend some support to this view, but there were difficulties in moving across country at night over unknown going, and an earlier start might have led to a general mix-up in the dark. On the whole it is probable that Horrocks and Briggs were right in deciding to wait until the moon rose.

Following this conference Kippenberger, together with the COs of 23rd and 28th Battalions and their intelligence officers, made a reconnaissance from the high ground between Hir Benia and Zemlet el Madjel, and had what the brigadier later described as ‘the best view of an enemy position I have ever had’. The usefulness of the hills flanking the gap for observation was thus shared by both sides, although the enemy had the advantage in this respect.

In the afternoon of 25 March Freyberg held another conference attended by COs and above, by heads of services, by RAF liaison officers and by Generals Horrocks and Briggs, at which he reviewed the whole position and explained the details of the NZ Corps plan, which was the first stage of the full plan for the attack on and disruption of the enemy lines at Tebaga and beyond. New Zealand Corps would make the gap, 1st Armoured Division would then go through, and as soon as NZ Corps could clear its flanks it would follow to El Hamma and Gabes. It was firmly intended that, provided the NZ Corps attack was not a complete debacle, 1st Armoured Division would go through. General Horrocks has since said that General Freyberg was most insistent in asking for assurances that the tanks would go through, to which he replied, ‘They will go through and I am going with them’.

The combined plan was sent to Army Headquarters by liaison officer in the afternoon, with Freyberg ‘s concurrence that the air-support programme should start half an hour before zero hour. The plan received unstinted approbation from the Army Commander, who signalled to both generals on the 25th that the plan was first class and, on 26 March, wrote to General Horrocks as follows:

"Have seen your LO with plan. It is very simple and first class. The weather forecast is not too good. But dust and smoke and sun in his eyes will make it quite impossible for the enemy to see anything.

The more dust the better – provided that the RAF can see the battle area from the sky.

Am sending you and Bernard one bottle of brandy each. Good luck to you and the whole party. My very special regards to Bernard."

Orders for Supercharge

Whatever Freyberg ‘s feelings may have been in the preceding forty-eight hours, he must have been relieved at the arrival of additional strength at the switch line, for a new vigour became apparent in the conduct of operations. The combination was now irresistible – Montgomery’s conception of a blitz attack to take place in the afternoon, Broadhurst’s readiness to provide overwhelming air support with new techniques, Freyberg ‘s plan for a set-piece attack to break through, and Horrocks’s determination that the armour would carry on relentlessly.

The actual plans are best explained by two orders issued during the night of 25–26 March.

The first is 10th Corps Operation Order No. 14, of which extracts follow:


  1. The enemy is now believed to be at full stretch and the only reinforcement on 10th Corps front which seems possible, is that 15 Pz Div might be extracted from Mareth to support 21st Pz Div. …


  1. 10th Corps will seize HAMMA.


  1. The operation will be divided into two phases.

Phase 1. The rupture by 2nd NZ Corps of the enemy’s present line in the area Y.9009 [north-east of Point 201 ].

Phase 2. Exploitation by 1st Armd Div to include the capture of Hamma.

  1. Phase 1

2nd NZ Corps will advance astride the main road for a distance of 4,500 yards from the ROMAN WALL. Details of this operation are in process of production by 2nd NZ Corps now.

ZERO HOUR will be 1600 hrs 26 Mar 43.

1 Armd Div will follow up the advance of 2nd NZ Corps.

  1. Phase 2.

1st Armd Div will pass through 2nd NZ Corps at Z plus 200 minutes and will be concentrated NORTH-EAST of 2nd NZ Corps final objective by last light 26 Mar 43.

When the moon is up i.e. approx 2315 hrs 1st Armd Div will move with centre line Main Road and capture HAMMA.

Subsequent to inception of Phase 2, 2nd NZ Corps will destroy the enemy in the hills on either side of the centre line of the advance. This will be completed with the greatest possible despatch in order that 2nd NZ Corps may rejoin 1st Armd Div in the HAMMA- GABES area earliest.

  1. ARTY

1st Armd Div Arty (less 11 H.A.C.) and 69th Med Regt will be in support of 2nd NZ Corps for Phase 1 of this operation. …

  1. AIR

For Phase 1 of this operation ALL air will be in support of 2nd NZ Corps. During this Phase 2nd NZ Corps will deal direct with Air Support Control on all matters affecting this Phase, HQ 10th Corps listening only. This support has been arranged to take the form of: –

(1) Night 25/26 Mar heavy night bombing of enemy forward areas on Corps front.

(2) P.M. 26 Mar until zero hour concentrated light bomber, fighter bomber and tank-buster attack on enemy troops, tanks and guns in the forward area.

From 1900 hrs 26 Mar air support will be controlled and arranged by HQ 10th Corps.


G.O.C. 10th Corps Recce HQ will be established initially in the area of Tac HQ 1st Armd Div. By the beginning of PHASE 2 it will be located with Main HQ 1st Armd Div. Main HQ 10th Corps will remain present location until mopping up operations by 2nd NZ Corps to the HAMMA area.

  1. Code name of operation is SUPERCHARGE.

The second relevant order is NZ Corps Operation Order No. 2, of which extracts follow:

  1. Air

From 1530 hrs for a period of two hours RAF is providing continuous fighter cover and direct air support for this operation. The following forces will be employed on this task: –

Sixteen sqns fighter-bombers

One sqn tank-busters

One sqn spitfires


  1. NZ Corps will attack and capture the enemy position between Djebel Tebaga and Djebel Melab [map references given.]


  1. General

The attack will be made on a two bde front with 5th NZ Inf Bde on the right and 6th NZ Inf Bde on the left, 8th Armd Bde superimposed on the whole front. It will be supported by RAF and Arty

  1. Start Line Boundaries etc.

See Trace ‘A’ attached.6

(a) …

(b) Axis of advance: rd KEBILI – HAMMA.

(c) …

(d) Boundaries

Inter-bde: rd KEBILI – HAMMA incl to 5 NZ Inf bde.

(e) Objectives

First: [2000 yards from start line]

Second: [2500 yards beyond first]

(f) Rate of advance

To first objective: 100 yds in 1 min

From first to second objective: 100 yds in 2 mins

  1. Timings

(a) 8th Armd Bde cross ROMAN WALL at 1600 hrs at same time as arty bombardment commences.

(b) 5th and 6th NZ Inf Bde[s] cross inf start line immediately behind 8th Armd Bde at 1615 hrs.

(c) There will be no pause on First Objective.

  1. Arty

(a) In addition to arty of NZ Corps, the attack will be supported by two fd regts and one med regt of 10th Corps

(b) Arty will support attack by a creeping barrage with timed concentrations on known enemy localities and hostile batteries.

(c) Timings for arty barrage are shown in Trace ‘A’.

(d) To indicate final objective has been reached arty will fire smoke for 4 minutes, 200 yds ahead of objective.

  1. Special Tasks

(a) KDG: will maintain patrols as at present and be prepared to concentrate at short notice and pass through the bridgehead and exploit NE.

(b) Div Cav: In support 6th NZ Inf Bde to move NE and assist in mopping up in foothills on western flank.

(c) 8th Armd Bde: move in advance of inf during attack with heavy sqns leading, and regulating pace to the arty barrage. Regts will support bns as under:

Notts Yeo: 28th NZ (Maori) Bn

Staffs Yeo: 23rd NZ Inf Bn

3 R Tanks: 24th NZ Inf Bn.

(d) Corps Res Gp: protection of Main NZ Corps

(e) ‘L’ Force: Maintain present tasks.

  1. Action on Capture of Final Objective

(a) 8th Armd Bde: rally and form bridgehead and exploit to east and NE.

(b) 5thth NZ Inf Bde: reorganise and exploit high ground to the east.

(c) 6th NZ Inf Bde: reorganise and complete mopping up of enemy pockets in foothills DJEBEL TABAGA.

  1. Recognition signals

(a) Ground to Air

(i) Forward line of inf will burn orange smoke at the following times: –

1530 hrs

1540 hrs

1550 hrs

It is essential that orange smoke be shown ONLY BY FORWARD LINE OF TPS in order that RAF will see continuous line of smoke indicating FDLs.

(ii) Arty will fire smoke, rate one round per minute in general area of hostile batteries from 1530 hrs to 1730 hrs.

(iii) To assist RAF, 5th NZ Inf Bde will establish a landmark letter ‘A’ at [point one mile east of Pt 201] by 0700 hrs and will burn RED and BLUE smoke on the site on approach of our own aircraft. Between 1530 hrs and 1600 hrs the smoke will be shown every 60 seconds.

(b) Ground to Ground

Tracer fired vertically.

  1. Zero Hour

Zero hour will be 1600 hrs, and is the time at which fire commences on the arty opening line.

  1. Security

It is imperative that NO mention of this operation be made by wireless, other than in high-grade cipher.

  1. Codewords

This operation will be known as SUPERCHARGE

  1. Synchronisation

By BBC time signal.

Groupings for the attack were much as usual, the field artillery remaining under the CRA until after the barrage. The brigade groups each had two machine-gun companies attached instead of the normal one, and 5th Brigade Group had two anti-tank batteries.

1 Like

Starting Positions for Supercharge II

Considerable rearrangement of battalion sectors was involved in the preparations. Fifth Infantry Brigade was to take over the front east of the Kebili – El Hamma road, and 6th NZ Infantry Brigade intended to reorganise its remaining portion of the front. But the first essential was the capture of Point 184, for it completely overlooked the proposed start line, which for most of its length was in front of the existing FDLs. There could be no move until this feature was held securely.

In view of the previous failure to capture this point and of the absolute necessity of its capture, Brigadier Kippenberger entrusted the task to a whole battalion. The CO of 21st Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Harding) was given orders for the attack at 10 a.m. on 25 March, and spent the rest of the morning and the early afternoon on reconnaissance with his company commanders, and in arranging artillery support through Brigade Headquarters. All instructions were verbal, as there was no time to prepare written orders. At this time – about midday 25 March – 5th NZ Infantry Brigade was still in the position taken up on 23 March as a counter to possible action by 10th Panzer Division.

The first objective was Point 184, known as Objective ‘A’, to be attacked by C Company (Major Laird7) with A (Captain Bullock-Douglas8) in support. The second was another knoll 1000 yards farther north, known as Objective ‘B’, to be attacked by D Company (Captain Murray9). The 4th and 6th Field Regiments were to concentrate for fifteen minutes on both objectives and then for another five on ‘B’ only. One medium battery was to fire on ‘B’ for the full twenty minutes. The start line was at right angles to the Roman Wall and faced east towards the objectives.

The 21st Battalion began to move up at 6.30 p.m. and debussed at the Roman Wall south-east of Point 201. The companies formed up on the start line just before midnight, the artillery opened fire at 1 a.m. on 26 March, and the companies advanced and, despite some close fighting, captured both objectives by 2.50 a.m. A Company, in reserve to C Company, was not called on. The artillery preparation appears to have demoralised the enemy, so enabling our infantry to follow up quickly with the bayonet before they could recover. Enemy losses on Objective ‘A’ appeared to be only six killed, but thirty-seven were taken prisoner, all from 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 21 Panzer Division. One truck, eleven heavy machine-guns, two mortars and much personal equipment was captured. On Objective ‘B’ twelve dead were counted, and eight were captured together with two mortars and one antitank gun. Here the enemy had fought harder; and shortly after D Company had consolidated, there was much noise from tanks and vehicles, and a counter-attack was suspected. Artillery support was called for at 3.15 a.m., and a concentration put down within nine minutes. It was effective in stopping any counter-measures.

The total casualties in 21st Battalion were four killed and seventeen wounded. Altogether it was a quick and clean operation. Before first light supporting arms – machine guns, mortars, and antitank guns – were in position, augmented by the mortars of 28 Battalion, which were to be on loan until that battalion advanced later in the day. There were distinct signs of an enemy attack about 8 a.m., but nothing happened, and no counter-action was taken, as it was not desired to alarm the enemy at that time.

Both the companies and their supporting weapons found great difficulty in digging in on the rocky ground, and had to build up rather than dig down. Enemy fire, heavy on occasion, made conditions most unpleasant up to the time the NZ Corps ‘ attack began. In this attack, 21st Battalion took no part, remaining in a right-flank protection role.

The brigade reorganisation could now go on without enemy observation from close at hand. Sixth Infantry Brigade had all three battalions in the line – 26th Battalion on the right, stretching out towards Point 184; 25th Battalion in the centre, mainly east of the El Hamma road, but with one company on the west; and 24th Battalion on the left, entirely west of the road. The brigade was now to attack with 24th Battalion only, with its right flank extended to but excluding the road.

A sequence of moves was now to take place in the following order – 28th Battalion to relieve 26th Battalion; 26th Battalion to occupy all 25th Battalion positions east of and including the El Hamma road; 25th Battalion moving out to relieve the Buffs battalion on the foothills on the extreme left. The 24th Battalion was to move forward to 1000 yards beyond the Roman Wall, with its right flank verging the road; 23rd Battalion was then to move up between 28th and 24th Battalions. The final state of the line, in preparation for the attack, would then be 28th Battalion on the right, 23rd in the centre, and 24th on the left. All the above moves were to be complete before first light on 26 March, for all movement after dawn was to be kept to the absolute minimum. Only troops whose training was thorough could have attempted such a reshuffle at night. In addition, patrols from 24th and 26th Battalions were to go out up to 1200 yards beyond heir new FDLs to discover if there were any minefields which might hinder the advance of the armour. Detachments of engineers moved with the patrols for mine-clearing. No incident occurred and no mines were reported.

The Maori Battalion moved early on 25 March, but did not occupy its forward position until after dark, initially relieving the forward companies of 26th Battalion. After a hot meal at 3 a.m., companies moved forward to the start line, except for B Company, on the extreme right, which was to be relieved by a company of 21st Battalion. This relief was delayed, and so B Company dug in some distance short of the start line, with orders to move off twenty minutes before zero hour so as to catch up. The battalion was dug in and out of sight by first light. Under command were one troop of six-pounders and one section of 17-pounders, a detachment of 7th Field Company and one platoon from 4th Machine-Gun Company. In addition, 28th Battalion was allotted temporarily the 21st Battalion carriers to protect its exposed right flank during the advance. The 28th Battalion mortars, on loan to 21st Battalion during the attack on Point 184, were to rejoin as soon as the advance started.

The 23rd Battalion moved off after dark and went as far as a lying-up position south of the Roman Wall. There the men bedded down until 3 a.m., when after a hot meal the advance to the start line commenced. Support arms were on the same scale as for 28th Battalion except for the exchange of mortars and carriers. Again, all were in position before daylight.

The 24th Battalion had only to move forward from its old positions. It had under command one machine-gun platoon and two sections of 8th Field Company, but no anti-tank guns, which for the time being were kept in brigade reserve.

After 23 Battalion had passed through, 26th Battalion took up a more concentrated position in rear. The 25th Battalion was withdrawn and at 2 p.m. moved across to relieve 1st Buffs of 8 thArmoured Brigade on the foothills on the left flank, where that battalion had been since 24 March.


Engineers from 7th Field Company conducted a mine reconnaissance of proposed artillery positions during 25 March, and made additional gaps through the minefield to allow regiments to get forward. In the afternoon 36 Survey Battery surveyed new forward positions for 4 and 5 NZ Field Regiments, 111th Field Regiment, RA, and 64th Medium Regiment, RA.

The artillery of 1st Armoured Division made a forced march and, except for one medium battery lost in a dust-storm, arrived after dark on 25 March and was deployed by the CRA NZ Corps in the moonlight. By the morning of 26 March six field regiments and two medium regiments were all ready. It had been exhausting work, involving much digging and dumping of ammunition in the midst of a khamsin, which raised the dust and limited visibility to 100 yards.

The three New Zealand field regiments were to fire a barrage, 4th Field Regiment covering the right sector of the two into which the front had been divided, 5th Field Regiment the left, and 6th Field Regiment the whole front. From the artillery opening line to the finishing line was 4200 yards, divided into forty-two 100-yard lifts, all at right angles to the axis of advance. The opening line was to have twenty-three minutes’ shelling at a mixture of rates: the first ten lifts were each to last a minute at normal rate, the tenth lift coinciding with the first objective. There was no pause on this objective, and from then on the barrage was to lift 100 yards every two minutes.

During the barrage 2nd and 4th Field Regiments, RHA, from 1st Armoured Division, 111 Field Regiment from 8th Armoured Brigade and 69 Medium Regiment from 10th Corps were to fire tasks, while 64th Medium Regiment (under command NZ Corps) was to fire a counter-battery programme. The task tables for all regiments included firing smoke at selected targets which were also to be attacked from the air, and this proved of much assistance to the RAF. The artillery firing the barrage was finally to fire smoke for four minutes, two hundred yards beyond the final objective, to indicate that it had been reached.

Rate of Advance

The rate of advance to the first objective, 100 yards in one minute, was a fast one for infantry and normally could not be maintained for very long. The reason in this case was that no enemy posts had been located between the start line and the first objective, and therefore no fighting was expected. Moreover, this was the area over which enemy defensive fire was expected, and which should be crossed quickly. Thereafter the rate fell to 100 yards in two minutes, which is still a fast rate.

Air Support

It has been seen above that great care was to be taken to indicate the leading wave of tanks and infantry, and it was hoped that the orange smoke would appear from the air as a continuous line.

The air attack was to open with simultaneous bombing by three squadrons of escorted light bombers, approaching at low level to achieve surprise. Thereafter two and a half squadrons of Kittyhawk bombers would enter the area every fifteen minutes to bomb selected targets, including gun positions. Throughout the period Hurricane tank-busters were to break up enemy tank concentrations. The normal night heavy bombing would continue, and was directed against El Hamma for the night 26–27 March.

The following extract from de Guingand’s account of the campaign explains the genesis of this new departure in North Africa:1

"We in the Army had always wanted to try out what is generally called a ‘Blitz’ attack. The Germans…used their dive bombers for that very close and intimate air support which we felt would prove very effective. Hitherto the close support given to the attack had always been by bomb from the light bomber, and the fighter bomber. The RAF had for very good reasons been against the dive bomber, but we felt the cannons from the fighter bomber with their bombs dropped from comparatively high the fighters might prove more deadly and disrupting to the enemy than altitudes. In view of the importance of this attack, and the narrow frontage to which we were confined, this did look to be the right occasion for trying out this type of attack. Using the fighter in this low-flying role over the immediate battle area was a considerable risk, and it was possible that the casualties would prove very severe. On the other hand, we felt that, from our own experiences from low-flying attacks, the defence took some time to recover equilibrium, and that some sort of temporary paralysis often set in.

The Commander of the Western Desert Air Force, Air Vice-Marshal Broadhurst, agreed to give full co-operation and supply ‘the whole boiling match’, and both commander and pilots entered into the plan with an enthusiasm that guaranteed success.

Brigade Operation Orders

Fifth Infantry Brigade operation order was received by battalions early on 26 March. The order largely recapitulated what has been said above in relation to 10th Corps and NZ Corps orders, but the following paragraphs applied particularly to the brigade:

  1. The attack will be made on a two bn front, 28th NZ (Maori) Bn on right, 23rd NZ Bn on left, supported by RAF, Arty, and with two regts hy tanks (Notts Yeo and Staffs Yeo) superimposed on Bde front.

  1. Carriers

(a) Two secs carriers from 21st NZ Bn will report forthwith to 28th NZ (Maori) Bn and will come under comd on arrival.

(b) Carriers universal and mortar will move behind by tanks and ahead of light flanks with special tasks of: –

(i) Protecting flanks

(ii) Attacking and neutralising enemy A Tk guns

(iii) Covering exploitation and consolidation.

  1. Special task: 21st NZ Bn will remain in present area and will assist adv by

(i) Giving protection to right flank

(ii) Neutralising all enemy fire possible.

  1. Action on capture of final objective

(a) Exploitation

(i) 23rd NZ Bn will exploit to limit of high ground on axis of adv.

(ii) 28th NZ (Maori) Bn will exploit to limit of high ground on axis adv and to high ground on EAST.

(b) Reorganisation: will proceed under unit direction on final objective.

  1. MMGs: 2nd NZ MG Coy will remain in present posn until further orders and maintain liaison with Bde HQ.

{This was the additional MG Coy in the Group.}

On 5th NZ Brigade front, 28th Battalion, holding a frontage of 1400 yards on the exposed right flank, had the most difficult task, namely the capture of Point 209.

The 6th NZ Brigade operation order was a simple one, as the brigade was attacking on a one-battalion front only. Special points were that 24th Battalion was to follow behind the Crusader tanks of 3rd Royal Tanks as they crossed the start line. On the final objective the battalion was to reorganise on a 2000-yard front. The 25th Battalion was to support the attack with observed fire from its position on the left flank, and was to assist Divisional Cavalry in mopping up. The battalion was to be prepared to move forward and reorganise on the left of 24th Battalion once the final objective had been reached.

By dawn on 26 March the infantry was lying up in slit trenches, well camouflaged. Fires were forbidden and the men rested, for little sleep had been possible during the night. The forward positions, except those of 21st Battalion, obvious on Point 184, were not subjected to any increased shellfire in the period before zero hour, which is a tribute both to the success of the concealment, and to the battle discipline of the troops.

The plan for NZ Corps ‘ part in SUPERCHARGE had been prepared speedily, and was simple and clear. It showed the GOC and 2 NZ Division at their best, and could be taken as a model of its kind. The preliminaries to the attack were also much to the credit of the Division and of the commander who trained it – the decisive attack on Point 184, and the amazing rearrangement of units during the night 25–26 March, all showing good staff work and good training.

While this activity was going on at Tebaga, far away in the rear the road from Medenine via Hallouf Pass was open for mechanical transport by nightfall on 25 March, the advance of 4th Indian Division having uncovered the approaches. Contact between the two wings of Eighth Army was by that amount closer, but it does not appear that in the end much use was made of this route. New Zealand Corps did not use it, but continued to use the route via Wilder’s Gap to Gabes. Shortly after the attack an Army Roadhead was opened near Gabes, and NZ Corps wound up its administrative tail on the old route and commenced drawing from there.

The Enemy

It will be remembered that one of Montgomery’s reasons for changing his plan was that the enemy had committed his reserve (15th Panzer Division) to the Mareth front. By 24 March, however, 15th Panzer was withdrawn to a central position ready to reinforce either front, and was watching closely the situation at Tebaga. Tenth Corps was now moved to the Tebaga front and SUPERCHARGE was launched before 15th Panzer moved a second time. Despite the check at Mareth Montgomery kept the initiative.

During 25 March the enemy formations at Tebaga reported no special activity, except the Allied mastery of the air and vast superiority in ammunition. They comment ruefully that bombers were over their lines without a break all night. The 21st Panzer Division seems to have been disconcerted by the attack on Point 184, and soon decided that all it could do was to seal off the penetration.

The front opposite NZ Corps was still divided between 164th German Light Division and 21st Panzer Division, with the dividing line the road running through the gap to El Hamma, but with tanks from 21st Panzer Division across the whole front. The 164th Light Division’s sector included the slopes of Djebel Tebaga, while 21st Panzer Division had its left flank on Djebel Melab. There were odd Italian groups of men – one can hardly call them units – interspersed along the front. The Germans merely mention ‘remnants of Mannerini Group’.

German documents record that on 25 March 21st Panzer Division had forty-four tanks, and 15th Panzer Division twenty-nine. But the number of tanks with these two divisions fluctuated widely from day to day. Twenty-four hours later 21st Panzer had only twenty-five tanks effective after our offensive, and on 27 March 15th Panzer had only nineteen. A report of 30 March shows 21th Panzer with thirteen runners and forty-five in workshops, while 15th Panzer had ten runners and twenty-five in workshops. The German repair system was good, and low numbers on one day did not mean that the numbers would not be high the next. All that can be said by way of generalisation is that the two divisions together did not have as many tanks as 8th Armoured Brigade, which left 2nd Armoured Brigade of 1st Armoured Division as clear profit – a very substantial profit of 67 Shermans, 11 Grants, and 60 Crusaders.

The enemy’s appreciation of Allied intentions was quite firm. The move of 10th Corps from Mareth had been observed late on 23 March, and continued movement was reported on the following day. His immediate reactions have been related, and although no orders appear to have been issued to units before the attack was launched, the probability of early withdrawal may have had some effect on dispositions, particularly those of 15th Panzer Division.

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An Outline of Supercharge II

Precisely at 3.30 p.m. the Air Force appeared, and for half an hour bombed and strafed enemy positions and gun emplacements. Then the guns opened and the heavy tanks of 8th Armoured Brigade moved forward from their concealed positions ready for the attack, followed by the first line of carriers. The sun shone behind the tanks as they moved forward, and the strong wind which had been blowing all day carried the stirred-up dust into the enemy lines; thus the enemy was not only looking into the sun but into dust and haze with the sun behind it. Moreover, the enemy was by now accustomed to the usual night attack, and was probably ill-prepared for a daylight assault. It was not until the first line of armour reached the start line at 4.15 p.m. that the enemy reacted, and it is not known whether this was due to the element of surprise, the poor visibility, or because the fighter-bombers kept the enemy crews away from their guns, but probably it was the result of all three.

When the leading tanks on the right flank ran into shellfire on the start line the tank commanders must have thought that they had caught up with the barrage, for the tanks halted. This was quickly noticed and the tanks were told to move on, after a pause of only a few minutes. The second wave of armour, Crusader tanks followed by carriers, had probably closed up a little, for at 4.20 p.m. the first wave moved on, closely followed by the second wave. Almost immediately afterwards the infantry moved into position approximately 200 yards behind the armour and the whole force was in motion. The Shermans and carriers, followed by Crusaders and carriers, followed by the lines of infantry of the three battalions, all advancing behind the fire of six field and two medium regiments, while overhead fighter, light-bomber and tank-buster aircraft flew in constant procession, represented the closest co-operation between land and air forces that the war in the desert had seen: it was the perfect blitzkrieg. Behind the front line the tanks and lorried infantry of 1st Armoured Division waited, ready to move up and exploit success when the gap had been breached.

The advance to the first objective was accomplished without serious opposition, and for the infantry it was largely a matter of following the tanks. The enemy was obviously not prepared for a daylight attack, infantry and artillery positions being sited with a view to night defence.

The smoothness of the advance was interrupted beyond the line of the first objective. On the right flank the tanks were held up by the difficult, heavily defended feature Point 209, and forced by the going to bunch to the west. The 28th Battalion was halted and deployed to attack Point 209 and its western extremity, the underfeature later called Hikurangi.

In the centre momentum was not lost, although tanks and carriers met determined opposition on the reverse slopes of the feature between the first and second objectives. Opposition to 23rd Battalion in the centre was chiefly on its right flank, where German infantry put up a determined, but short-lived, defence from well entrenched positions. This opposition was largely overcome by the carriers. The tanks, closely followed by carriers and the leading infantry companies, reached a line slightly short of the second objective at 5.56 p.m., twenty-three minutes after the barrage had lifted 200 yards to fire smoke as a guide to the infantry.

On the left sector, west of the road, the tanks were not far behind those in the centre. Here the advance had lost the precision shown earlier because of an unsuspected minefield supporting dug positions on the left flank. The tanks lost formation, and then advanced too quickly for the infantry; 24th Battalion encountered very stiff resistance from German machine-gun posts bypassed by the tanks, posts which were still being dealt with when 1st Armoured Division began to move up the El Hamma road. But, despite heavy casualties, the leading infantry company reached its final objective within five minutes of the tanks.

At 6 p.m. 1st Armoured Division passed through the forward positions to laager in its forward staging area until the moon rose to light the remainder of the advance to El Hamma. The gap had been won.

8th Armoured Brigade

While the regiments of 8th Armoured Brigade each operated on the front of one battalion, and were ‘in support’, the fact that they were advancing in front of the infantry gave them almost an independent role, and on the whole they adhered to their advance without conforming to the varying fortunes of the infantry. It had been impressed on all the regiments that the important thing was to break through, and that they should not delay on account of individual battles or delays on the flanks of their advance.

Each regiment advanced with its heavy squadron of Shermans and Grants in front, following which came the carriers of the battalions, and then the Crusaders in the second line of tanks followed by the carriers of the armoured regiments. At this point the leading foot soldiers joined the advance. Notts Yeomanry had a rough passage round Point 209, but their war diary cheerfully reports that in the end they got to their objective. Staffs Yeomanry in the centre had the clearest run, and reached Wadi el Aisoub in advance of the final objective. Similarly 3rd Royal Tanks on the left reached the same wadi, but only after some difficulty. None of the regiments lost touch completely with its affiliated battalion, although there was a period when the tanks were forging ahead on their own.

In this attack 8th Armoured Brigade lost twelve Shermans, one Grant and three Crusaders, but claimed the destruction of sixteen enemy tanks and sixteen guns. It took 130 prisoners. Of the three regiments 3rd Royal Tanks had the heaviest losses, due partly to minefields and partly to enemy tanks.

28 (Maori) Battalion

The 28th Battalion advanced with A Company (Major Porter13) on the right and B Company (Captain Sorensen14) on the left; C Company (Captain Awatere15), 300 yards behind, covered both these companies, and D Company (Captain Matehaere16), another 300 yards in the right rear of C, had the special task of watching the exposed right flank. Two sections of carriers operated some two miles to the east as right-flank guard.

For three-quarters of the way to the first objective the battalion had few casualties, for enemy shelling was directed mainly at the tanks. But nearer this objective there were signs that stiffer opposition lay ahead. Point 209 was clearly held strongly, and already four tanks of Notts Yeomanry had been knocked out after pushing their attack with vigour. The tanks bunched to the left away from Point 209 and advanced up a small wadi, and 28th Battalion also edged off to the left and finally was somewhat concentrated well to the west of Point 209.

Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett then went forward to the tank commander. The essential task was to clear the high ground on the right, with its many anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns. Accordingly Bennett ordered C Company to swing right and capture Point 209, while the other three companies were to dig in where they were and so establish a firm base. It was then 5 p.m. and still light. A and B Companies were about 1000 yards beyond the first objective, but were still 1500 yards short of the final objective, while D Company faced right to the south of Point 209.

Topography now played a part, for the hill immediately to the right, C Company’s objective, was not in fact Point 209, but a steep underfeature west of and separated from it by a saddle almost 1000 yards long. There is some doubt whether anyone realised this at the time, but certainly both battalion and later brigade headquarters thought for varying periods that C Company’s attack was being made on Point 209 proper. Bennett was not certain when he visited the feature after dusk, and in the confusion of battle the point was not cleared up at that time. Brigade Headquarters had been informed that 209 had been captured and did not realise the mistake until the brigade commander went forward in the morning to see for himself. This meant that in the evening and during the night there was no artillery fire in immediate support of the attackers, and what fire there was came down on the reverse slopes of Point 209, in the belief that the summit of that feature had been captured. Had the true situation been known, Brigade Headquarters could have arranged for heavy artillery support.

The sub-feature was later called Hikurangi, after a mountain in the East Coast district of New Zealand from which C Company was drawn. The defenders came from II Battalion, 433rd Panzer Grenadier Regiment, of 164 Light Division. C Company attacked Hikurangi with great dash, Captain Awatere working his three platoons with whistle and arm signal in a manner that was most impressive. No. 13 Platoon (Lieutenant Jackson17) worked round the hill on the right, 15 Platoon (Lieutenant Haig18) in the centre, and 14 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu19) on the left. No. 15 Platoon was pinned to the ground near the foot of the hill and could not get forward till after dark: 13 and 14 Platoons reached a point near, but not actually on, the crest. The enemy, above them on the reverse slope, counter-attacked repeatedly, supported by intense machine-gun and mortar fire, but was gallantly withstood, although with severe losses to C Company. By nightfall when Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett visited Hikurangi, both Captain Awatere and Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu had been wounded. Awatere refused to go until his wounded leg had swollen so much that he could only crawl, and the command of the company passed to Lieutenant Jackson. Ngarimu asked to be allowed to stay, and was given permission. Bennett gave instructions that the hill was to be held at all costs, while the remaining companies were to be ready for counter-attacks. Battalion headquarters was established a few hundred yards from the foot of Hikurangi.

Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett was not at the time aware that the main attack had reached the final objective, and that a gap had been made through the enemy position. The capture of Hikurangi and Point 209 had now in effect developed into a private struggle between 28th Battalion and II/433 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, to be fought out with all the gallantry that grim determination can produce.

The battalion support arms came forward after dark and were deployed, and the mortars, now rejoined from 21st Battalion, were concentrated at the foot of Hikurangi; and equally acceptable was the arrival of a hot meal about 8 p.m. This was distributed throughout, even to the men of C Company who were within earshot of the enemy. The dead and wounded were removed from the top of the hill and signal lines laid to all companies from battalion headquarters.

However, there was no communication with Brigade Headquarters, and the brigade commander in some concern instructed 21 Battalion to send a patrol from Point 184 to make contact. This was duly done, but as it happened 28 Battalion was finally in touch by wireless with Brigade Headquarters about the same time. The report was then made that Point 209 had been captured. The battalion appeared to be in good order, but Bennett was concerned both about his open right flank, and in having all four companies committed. He tried to arrange for tanks to be placed on his right flank, but without success. His only reserve was the carrier platoon. Brigadier Kippenberger then instructed 21st Battalion to move one company forward to the right of 28th Battalion, and after sundry adventures, including an alarming encounter with a patrol from 23rd Battalion, A Company of 21 Battalion (Captain Bullock-Douglas) arrived in position to the right of D Company, 28 Battalion. It was then 3 a.m. on 27 March. There was still a gap between A Company’s position and that of D Company, 21st Battalion, on the northern hillock of Point 184.

About this time also, 23rd Battalion on the other flank made contact with 28, and the latter’s brief isolation was at an end. The battalion was now in good heart for whatever the morning might bring.

23rd Battalion

The 23rd Battalion advanced with B Company (Captain Robertson20) on the right and D (Captain Black21) on the left, with A (Captain Thomas22) behind B, and C (Captain Slee23) behind D. The battalion had comparatively easy going, for the ground was good for tanks, which advanced steadily in line, drawing most of the artillery fire. Lieutenant-Colonel Romans travelled well forward in a jeep, within speaking distance of the RSM of Staffs Yeomanry, who moved in a rear tank and was in wireless touch with the regimental commander. Romans was lucky, for a jeep amongst armour is a risky vehicle. His water bottle was shot from his side and several bullet-holes were drilled in the jeep’s seat.

The first objective was passed about 4.40 p.m. almost unnoticed, but more shell and machine-gun fire marked the advance to the final objective. However, many enemy defensive positions were now overrun, and Germans surrendered in dozens. Enemy tanks were driven off by Staffs Yeomanry and four destroyed. But touch was lost with 28th Battalion, the ground caused the tanks to bunch towards the left flank and the companies lost their precise formation. D Company on the left, for instance, drew additional support from the tanks on its front and got ahead of the others. There was increasing enemy fire as the troops reached the crest of a low rise (which was in fact the watershed of Tebaga Gap), but the momentum of the advance was enough to keep it going, and co-ordinated attacks dealt with some annoying anti-tank guns which had accounted for six Staffs Yeomanry tanks. The battalion carriers here did noble work, armed not only with Brens but with captured enemy weapons, and there were occasions when they engaged enemy anti-tank guns at close range.

During the advance down the northern slopes of the rise, there was increased fire from enemy positions which had already been overrun by tanks. Many prisoners were disarmed and sent back but enemy fire increased. The tanks were by now under heavy antitank fire from the north side of Wadi el Hernel, and from enemy tanks there and in Wadi el Fellag, but were fast nearing the final objective. B Company on the right front was forced to go to ground, so Captain Thomas brought A Company forward to the right of B, and sent a section against the enemy in Wadi el Fellag, disorganising them and even inducing enemy tanks to withdraw.

About 6 p.m. both A and B Companies were dug in just south of Wadi el Hernel and D Company was on their left close to the El Hamma road, all only slightly short of the final objective. Staffs Yeomanry had by then cleared the area up to Wadi el Hernel, and 1st Armoured Division was beginning to pass through towards Wadi Aisoub. Patches of resistance on the right flank were soon cleared up, firing died down, and the battalion consolidated with the tanks laagered behind the forward companies. There was still, however, no link with 28 Battalion, and finally Lieutenant-Colonel Romans sent out a patrol from A Company, which met A Company from 21st Battalion advancing to support the 28th, and very nearly started a private war.

Battalion headquarters was set up well forward of the rise between the two objectives, but owing to a breakdown in the wireless set was not in touch with Brigade Headquarters until nearly midnight. The night proved uneventful.

The battalion war history records that ‘practically everything in this battle went according to plan for the battalion’, and it had scored a clear-cut victory on the vital sector of the front. The total casualties were 11 killed and 30 wounded, but over 400 prisoners were taken. The battalion had the highest praise for the Staffs Yeomanry.

24th Battalion

The 24th Battalion was delayed on the start line for almost ten minutes because 3rd Royal Tanks mistook the enemy’s artillery fire for the supporting barrage and waited for it to lift. This rectified, the initial advance proceeded smoothly, but the delay caused the battalion to fall well behind the barrage. Twelve of the tanks paused briefly to embark two men each as ‘tank-riding crews’, one man with a sub-machine gun, and one with a bag of No. 36 grenades. This was the first time such action had been taken and, in fact, 24th Battalion was the only one to try the practice. The experiment was not a success.

C Company (Captain Seal24) on the right and D (Captain Dew25) on the left advanced behind the armour, with A (Captain Aked26) in support. B Company (Major Andrews27) was 600 yards behind in the left rear with orders not to become involved, but each of the forward companies had a section from B Company to help collect prisoners, and all companies had 3-inch mortars under command.

The advance to the first objective was uneventful. Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly, travelling in a carrier, moved forward to contact the tanks and try to speed up the advance, but enemy opposition became so strong that there was no question of catching up with the barrage. A ridge sloped down into the battalion sector from the west about midway between the two objectives, with a minefield on its southern slopes leaving a gap near the Hamma road. The top of the ridge was heavily defended by anti-tank guns. The defenders were from 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 164th German Light Division and some Italians supported by tanks from 21st Panzer Division.

Some tanks and carriers tried to burst through the minefield, but several were blown up, and others bunched towards the road to move over the ridge at the road end, where the enemy had placed his strongest anti-tank defences. Only on the extreme right of the sector did the advance proceed satisfactorily, and here the tanks reached the final objective shortly before 6 p.m. The delays at the minefield caused those tanks which cleared the area to speed up to catch the barrage, but thereby they left many enemy positions unattacked, and as their aim was to break through to the final objective they were of little assistance to the infantry. After the battle, Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly spoke strongly about the need for a better system of communication between battalion and regimental commanders, the only method open to him being to climb into a tank and use the regiment’s internal link. The battalion was now confronted with an enemy which was probably numerically stronger and was firmly entrenched. C Company passed just to the east of the minefield and continued to advance, but with its left flank in the air, as D Company on its left was faced with stern opposition from the ridge in front of it. It was during this progress almost across the enemy’s front that C Company suffered its heaviest casualties. Many posts were mopped up but others had to be left, and it was now that the men riding on the tanks were sorely missed. Prisoners were merely disarmed and sent back as there were no spare men for escorts despite the extra section from B Company. But Captain Seal kept the company going, and alone among the companies of 24th Battalion it reached the vicinity of the final objective by 6 p.m. Later some carriers, sent forward by Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly after he had visited the company, were used to fill the gap caused by the absence of D Company. Thus C Company’s success, plus that of 23rd Battalion and 8 Armoured Brigade, cleared a sufficient gap in the centre of the enemy line for 1st Armoured Division to progress astride the vital axis of advance.

In the rear of C Company the position was not good, and among other complications, unguarded prisoners picked up abandoned weapons and resumed hostilities. In this confused situation some of our wounded were killed. On the left, D Company reached the first objective without difficulty, and then arrived at the minefield from which the tanks had swerved away. By now the barrage was lost, but Captain Dew had been told that the infantry attack must continue, and all three platoons crossed the minefield and advanced under heavy fire against the ridge beyond, capturing some twenty prisoners who were sent to the rear without escort. The commander of 16 Platoon, Second-Lieutenant Cater,28 was killed and gradually every man in the platoon became a casualty; 17 Platoon was finally pinned to the ground in front of an enemy strongpoint and its commander, Lieutenant Friend ,29 was wounded; and 18 Platoon reached the crest of the ridge and was closing with the enemy when, among other casualties, its commander, Second-Lieutenant Woodcock,30 was killed. The company had maintained its offensive till the last but was by now exhausted of manpower and incapable of further effort.

A Company in support then became involved, and was held up behind the minefield, where it found several tanks knocked out as well as the mortars of D Company. No. 7 Platoon was sent round the western end of the minefield, and 8 and 9 still farther to the left, in an attempt to outflank the strongpoints at the top. They managed to move forward for a while, but it was slow progress. For the moment Captain Aked refrained from launching any stronger attack until he could discuss the situation with the battalion commander, and he withdrew 7 Platoon which was making no progress.

Now B Company, the reserve, came into the picture. The company commander, Major Andrews, could see the trouble ahead, and leaving his company under cover went to battalion headquarters, soon to be joined by Captain Aked. Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly was at the moment away in his carrier with C Company, and the adjutant, Captain Boord ,31 had been wounded some time before; and so Major Andrews was left to make his own decision, which was to attack farther on the left, where there was a chance that he would outflank the enemy and even link up with 25th Battalion.

Unknown to him, however, Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly sent back a radio signal to B Company ordering it forward on C Company’s axis, with the idea of taking the enemy strongpoints from the rear – in other words exploiting success. But B Company’s signal arrangements had broken down and the message was never delivered.

So B Company moved off to the west and then advanced in extended order across the minefield, but as soon as it emerged from a patch of dead ground it was faced with heavy small-arms fire and was gradually forced to ground. After a while Andrews thought it was serving no useful purpose to stay there in daylight – it was about 6 p.m. – and so withdrew the company and re-formed, reporting back at once to the battalion commander.

At Headquarters it was found that the position had improved. There had been a conference between Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly, Captain Aked and Captain Dew, the last-named describing the losses of D Company and the obscure position on his front, where, however, the company had now made some progress. So Conolly ordered A Company to carry on with its attack, and Aked decided to go on in one line with the two platoons left to him. No. 7 Platoon had not yet reported back. With mortar support A Company charged forward, withheld their fire until at short range, and then closed with the bayonet. The verve of this attack at the double overwhelmed the enemy and all the enemy troops not killed surrendered at once. The company advanced down the northern slopes of the ridge for 300 yards and then reorganised, having taken ninety-two prisoners. A surprising reinforcement to this attack came from seven men of 3rd Royal Tanks whose vehicles had been knocked out, but who had joined A Company in its last assault.

So with this foundation Conolly ordered B Company to renew the attack wide on the left, and the advance was resumed at 9 p.m.; but the enemy had retired. Later about eighteen survivors from D Company were added to B, and the company advanced steadily and consolidated on the left of C, a little short of the final objective. This move concluded 24th Battalion’s attack, and by 10 p.m. the sector was stable. Expected counter-attacks did not eventuate, and by 2 a.m. on 27 March the whole area had been combed for enemy troops, and all companies were reorganised and dug in. One company from 26 Battalion was standing ready to help with mopping up, but this assistance was not required.

Casualties in 24th Battalion were fairly heavy – 49 killed and 58 wounded, a much higher proportion of killed to wounded than is normal. The medical records show that the proportion of killed to wounded all across the front was higher than usual, owing possibly to the fact that this attack was made in daylight.

The battalion had captured between 400 and 500 prisoners, and another 150 were rounded up in the morning; and enemy casualties in killed and wounded were high also. Inspection of the enemy position disclosed just how strongly it had been prepared and fortified, but a sustained offensive by 24th Battalion, combined with success elsewhere, had overcome all opposition.

Flanking Units

The 21st Battalion on Point 184 continued to be shelled throughout the Corps’ attack, but as the advance progressed the shelling came from the east only. Any movement from the hastily constructed slit trenches was almost impossible, and for the moment the battalion was held down to its defensive role.

The 28th Battalion had sent two sections of its carriers to operate up to two miles on the east of the battalion, with the task of stopping interference from that area. Both sections drew a considerable amount of fire, but they ranged far and wide and engaged anything that showed signs of movement.

On the left flank of the Corps 25th Battalion made a diversionary attack to draw enemy fire away from the left of 24th Battalion, distant about 2000 yards. No definite objective was given the battalion, the governing factor being the amount of opposition encountered. There was some progress on the right, an enemy position was captured, and after dark about fifty Italians surrendered. On the left the companies ran into heavy opposition from tanks, and were in the end pinned down and surrounded. The situation was saved by the battalion anti-tank platoon under Lieutenant Williams. It destroyed one tank, and then in turn pinned down the others, until finally they withdrew. After dark, when it was known that the main attack had been successful, all companies were withdrawn.

Divisional Cavalry patrolled all day in the foothills of Djebel Tebaga without any serious engagement. KDG and ‘L’ Force remained on Zemlet el Madjel and Djebel Melab, where ‘L’ Force worked towards Point 242.

Throughout the action there was practically no enemy counter-battery activity or air interference. Only one unit mentions the appearance of enemy aircraft and it refers to one ‘very slight fighter-bomber raid’. The only trouble came from a Kittyhawk fighter-bomber which attacked a Divisional Cavalry carrier and caused two casualties, and also strafed 6th NZ Brigade Headquarters three times. The pilot was apparently badly briefed for this was the only case where our aircraft made a mistake, a tribute to the system of marking ground positions which had been evolved.

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1st Armoured Division

Although 28th Battalion had not captured Point 209 by nightfall, the result of the attacks of 23rd and 24th Battalions was to open the gap for 1st Armoured Division, which advanced at the appointed time, and by last light was some four miles beyond the final objective. The appearance of the mass of tanks and other vehicles moving steadily forward was a very comforting sight.

The 1st Armoured Division halted until the moon rose (about 11 p.m.) and then continued its advance towards El Hamma, disregarding the scattered fighting still going on in NZ Corps ‘ area, and disregarding also the German troops and their defences still in position between NZ Corps ‘ final objective and El Hamma. The division was thus passing through the remnants of 164th German Light Division, and even more spectacularly was passing through 21st Panzer Division, which although only a shadow of its former strength was still a foe to be respected. During its advance the division charged through the headquarters of both the German divisions, so increasing the confusion.

For the moment, however, the activities of 1st Armoured Division had ceased to be the concern of NZ Corps.

The Enemy

During the morning of 26 March the enemy plans for the formal withdrawal from the Mareth Line were settled, although apparently the Italian formations in the line made it more difficult by beating the pistol and then demanding that the Germans cover their withdrawal. (Memories of the retreat from Alamein were still bitter ones.) There had been some idea of taking up an intermediate position on Wadi Zerkine, some six miles in the rear, but the final decision was to go straight back to a line in front of Gabes, the first stage to be on the night 26–27 March.

The loss of Point 184 early on 26 March was enough to cause part of 15th Panzer Division to be sent forward to strengthen the German left flank, but while the enemy was still taking steps to remedy this defeat, the afternoon attack burst on him with staggering force, and for the first time in the period covered in this volume there are clear signs of disorganisation and even panic. The opening air attacks were in themselves most effective. On the front of 21th Panzer Division traffic to and from the fighting line became impossible, and the artillery of 164th German Light Division lost more than half its guns. There was a frantic appeal for help from the air, but by 6 p.m. not a single Axis aircraft had been seen by 21st Panzer Division.

On that division’s front the position at dark was not bad, as it had not been directly attacked, and Point 209 on its right was still holding out. The strength of the NZ Corps’ attack came as a surprise to 164th German Light, whose communications had already been dislocated by the blitz attack; but despite the knowledge that a wide penetration had been made on its front, its commander, von Liebenstein – who also commanded the whole Tebaga front – took steps to restore the situation, including bringing the engineer battalion into the firing line. He then decided that 164th German Light would fight it out on the right, while a combination of 15th and 21th Panzer Divisions on the left counter-attacked against the right flank of the advancing NZ Corps.

But the results of 1st Armoured Division’s penetration at midnight and later were catastrophic, and the whole front, at least as far as 164th German Light Division was concerned, collapsed. But again von Liebenstein did all he could to restore the situation by placing a large concentration of anti-aircraft guns astride the track to El Hamma to stop the British tanks. These guns did not open fire, because they had never expected tanks to push ahead in the dark and took them for German. Had they opened fire, it might have seriously affected 1st Armoured Division’s advance, but on the other hand might have only increased the confusion in the German ranks – a confusion that was certainly made no less by the appearance of British tanks passing through the divisional headquarters. One enemy battery was actually overrun by our tanks and was wiped out.

After what must have been a period of great tension among the various commanders and staffs, it became obvious that 164th German Light Division was in no state to stand and fight any further, and must break clear; so an immediate withdrawal was ordered to the south-west of El Hamma, where a centre of resistance would be organised to cover the withdrawal of forces from Mareth. The 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance Units, which all this time had been north-west of Djebel Tebaga, were ordered to move at once to the defile south-west of El Hamma, and a garrison which surprisingly was still at Kebili was withdrawn. From far and near the various commanders – Bayerlein at Liaison Headquarters and von Liebenstein at 164th German Light Division – began to collect units and bits of units to form a new line. It was a remarkable effort of improvisation and of restoring order out of near-chaos – particularly as 164th German Light Division was short of MT, and some of the troops had to walk back across Djebel Tebaga.

One ripple of the disorganisation was that II/433 Panzer Grenadier Regiment on Point 209 was cut off from communication with its own division, and was transferred to the command of 21st Panzer Division with which it had kept touch. The 21st Panzer Division was not much affected on its own front by the general upset, but its tanks were well spread and the breakthrough threatened to surround and cut off much of the armour remaining to it. What can only be called a sauve-qui-peut instruction was sent out to the tanks, but in the end some sort of order was restored.

March on El Hamma

March on El Hamma


British tanks on El Hamma Road

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Attack on Mareth Line

The following is an extract from 21st Panzer Division’s war diary for 27 March:

0001 hrs {i.e., midnight 26–27 March}: Report received that enemy tanks were advancing 2 km south of Div Battle HQ.

0015 hrs: The G 1 decided to move battle HQ. The move had to be made in a hurry, as the enemy tanks had advanced to a point level with Div Battle HQ and were spraying the area right and left of the track with fire. The Ops staff like many other German units, took advantage of the heavy sand-storm and disengaged from the enemy unseen, moving parallel to the enemy advance.

The only hope was that at first light 15th Panzer Division, now complete after its move, would be able to counter-attack and relieve the pressure, but at what must have been a tense conference at 8 p.m. the commander of 8th Panzer Regiment of 15th Panzer Division reported that he had only ten runners.

Strangely enough, 21st Panzer Division reported that it was 4th Indian Division that had attacked – possibly the Maoris were mistaken for Indian troops. At this time 4th Indian Division was no farther north than Toujane.

Point 209

For NZ Corps the full capture of Point 209 had never been of the first importance. It was enough to blanket it and prevent the enemy from interfering with the move of 1st Armoured Division and the later follow-up by the Corps. In the end the move forward of NZ Corps commenced before Point 209 was finally subdued, and the struggle there thus remained an isolated one between two fairly equal infantry units, one of which had great resources to support it, while the other was in effect abandoned by its parent formation and left to its fate.

During the night 26–27 March the struggle on the top of Hikurangi continued, the enemy launching repeated counter-attacks. The enemy battalion disposed two companies on and around Hikurangi, headquarters and one company on Point 209, and one company behind 209. The Maoris and the Germans on Hikurangi were only about twenty yards apart, and each time the sound of footsteps gave warning of another attack the men of 13 and 14 Platoons threw hand grenades. When the enemy once broke into 14 Platoon’s sector Ngarimu moved there, killed some Germans with his Tommy gun, and scared others away by throwing stones as if they were grenades. ( No. 7 Company of II/433 Regiment also used stones on occasion.) C Company’s casualties gradually mounted. The hill was held, but by morning Lieutenant Jackson reported that it was doubtful if the company could hold out much longer, as only about twelve men were left, so two sections from D Company were sent up as reinforcements.

The last counter-attack came while this decision was being made, 7 Company having been reinforced by two other platoons. It was watched anxiously from the foot of the hill. Ngarimu was seen waving his men on, Tommy gun in hand, and then at last was shot down on the crest of the hill. For a moment it looked as if the enemy would regain Hikurangi, and the battalion carriers were brought forward to cover the area; but this was the enemy’s last effort, and they shortly afterwards withdrew to Point 209. We know today that in this last attack all the enemy platoon commanders and half the men became casualties.

D Company under Captain Matehaere was now ordered to take over the defence of Hikurangi.

The brigade commander was at this time with Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett. He had first visited 21st Battalion and then moved north to 28th Battalion. Only then, from the profile of the feature thus presented, was it realised that Point 209 proper was still in enemy hands. He telephoned the Brigade Major (Major Fairbrother) and ordered heavy ‘stonks’35 on Point 209, saying that it was perfectly safe for 28th Battalion for they were well short of that point. The artillery complied with alacrity and with great effect. The first concentration was fired at 8.42 a.m. by two field and two medium regiments, and was repeated several times, causing devastating damage.

Brigadier Kippenberger impressed on Bennett that the offensive must be maintained, but was content to leave it to 28th Battalion as he was sure the feature must sooner or later fall by the weight of events. He then moved on to 23rd Battalion, told them of the position, and gave orders for help to be given to 28th Battalion if asked for.

Meanwhile Matehaere’s company relieved the remnants of C Company. There was considerable enemy activity on the Corps’ right flank, but despite one or two indications, including the movement of tanks, no counter-attack developed and the impression gained ground that the enemy was withdrawing – but not yet from Point 209.

The first signs of weakness came at 10 a.m. when two Germans tried to surrender, but not making this obvious enough they were shot down. Then about 11 a.m. four Germans, a doctor and three medical orderlies, came over under a Red Cross flag. The doctor asked in fluent English for assistance for ninety badly wounded men, as they had run out of medical supplies. With the permission of Brigade Headquarters it was arranged that the wounded should be brought to 28th Battalion Regimental Aid Post, stretchers being lent for the purpose.

At midday the doctor was back again with a long column of wounded and with twenty others who had come to surrender. From interrogation it was clear that the enemy could not resist much longer, and Bennett decided that the time had come to deliver a final blow. D Company was warned to be ready to attack at 3 p.m. Bennett then made local arrangements with a nearby British field regiment (unidentified) for a concentration on the top of Point 209 at 3 p.m., and also arranged for the 23rd Battalion mortars to fire concentrations on the reverse slopes.

As it happened the artillery concentration was of no use, as the fire came down not on Point 209 but away to the north on B Company, 28th Battalion, and even on A Company, 23rd Battalion. The guns were stopped, and Matehaere asked whether or not he was to go on. He was ordered to proceed, and D Company advanced over the top of Hikurangi and as far as the foot of Point 209, but was then forced to ground by machine-gun fire.

This was the critical moment of the attack, but the CO detailed two carriers mounting heavy machine guns to go forward, and at the same time arranged supporting fire from two machine-gun platoons. The carriers moved in on Point 209, one from north and one from south, and the 23rd Battalion mortars fired steadily. At the right moment Matehaere and his company rose and charged up the hill. Many men of the Maori Battalion were now standing on Hikurangi urging the attackers on with cheers and hakas – and the enemy collapsed and surrendered. By 5 p.m. the surrender was complete. A total of 231 Germans, including the commander, Major Meissner, his adjutant and three company commanders, were rounded up. They had put up a stout defence and their CO attributed their capture to their lack of transport. The culminating point for the enemy, the adjutant claimed, had been the appearance of the carriers, which were mistaken for tanks.

A report by a company commander, however, makes it clear that the battalion commander had decided to surrender soon after midday and that the period thereafter had been spent preparing for this. The company commander would not accept the order to surrender, and in the end succeeded in getting some forty-two men from the battalion through to Gabes. Despite this achievement it seems certain that the battalion was in fact at its last gasp, having neither ammunition nor transport, with large numbers of wounded, and with no hope of relief.

The 28th Battalion casualties on 26 and 27 March were 22 killed and 77 wounded – again a proportion of killed to wounded slightly higher than normal.

For his outstanding service in this operation, Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

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Chapter 11: Concentration at Gabes


ALTHOUGH Point 209 had not been captured until 5 p.m. on 27 March, the further operations of NZ Corps were not delayed. By daylight it was known that the enemy had been completely cleared from the left flank on Djebel Tebaga, and preparations were made to follow 1st Armoured Division, leaving 5th NZ Infantry Brigade Group to clear the right flank and hand over to ‘L’ Force. The situation east of Point 209 was still uncertain. The enemy’s problem was now to withdraw about five weak divisions from the Mareth Line and through the gap at Gabes, the narrow corridor between the sea and the Chotts. There was thus a chance that the enemy might thrust to the south-west to keep the line of escape open, for he still had 15th Panzer Division and at least some of the tanks of 21st Panzer Division.

About midday, therefore, 5th NZ Infantry Brigade Group was ordered to take up a position roughly parallel to the Kebili – El Hamma road, facing south-east, to safeguard the line of communication. In this gun line 28th Battalion would stay where it was, 23rd Battalion was to move to its left, and 21st Battalion would prolong the line, each on a frontage of about 3500 yards. Part of ‘L’ Force relieved 21st Battalion on Point 184 in the afternoon. Other moves were dependent on the capture of Point 209, and did not start until about 6.30 p.m., but the group was in position by 10 p.m.

But the anticipated counter-attack had come and gone before 5th NZ Brigade changed position. Unmarked by the brigade, and apparently unknown to NZ Corps Headquarters, the enemy tank thrust to the south-west had been countered by 8th Armoured Brigade, all three regiments of which were engaged from 7 a.m. onwards, and despite losses beat off the enemy attack by midday. Bayerlein says:

‘Early in the morning (27 March) 15 thPanzer Division plus 21st Panzer Division ‘s tanks counter-attacked the enemy’s flank from the line Oglat Merteba – Djebel Souinia. The attack took the enemy by surprise, and six more heavy tanks were knocked out. About mid-day 15th Panzer Division had to retire to its start line in face of a strong armoured pincers attack. The objective to cut off the enemy had not been attained, but the flank attack had forced the enemy to divert the main body of his tanks from the north and set them against 15th Panzer Division. This relieved the thin El Hamma line temporarily.’

Bayerlein’s conclusion is wrong, however. The main body of tanks, those of 1st Armoured Division, maintained their attack on El Hamma without hindrance and 8th Armoured Brigade alone dealt with 15th Panzer Division, although the figure it later reported of seventy-five enemy tanks was about double the actual strength.

Meanwhile Divisional Cavalry was sent up the Kebili – El Hamma road to keep contact with 1st Armoured Division. Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant said later, ‘We tried till 4 p.m. to reach them, but every time our patrols went forward they were fired on by artillery and anti-tank guns and when they went on foot, by small-arms fire. We fired recognition signals and did everything possible to show them that we were friendly troops. On my asking them later if they knew what the recognition signal was, I was informed that they had never heard of it.’ Liaison was finally made on the road northwest of Oglat Merteba. The only consolation to Divisional Cavalry was the capture of 140 prisoners. In defence of 1st Armoured Division it must be said that during the morning it had been in action to both front and rear, and the situation in the rear had been obscured by a series of engagements with enemy tanks and 88-millimetre guns.

Units of 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group were ready to move from early morning, but it was not until late afternoon that they were ordered to assemble by 6.45 p.m., with the leading vehicles on the El Hamma road some four miles beyond the Roman Wall. New Zealand Corps had paused while the situation at El Hamma became clearer.

Dealing with the El Hamma Bottleneck

During the day 1st Armoured Division had sustained a check at El Hamma, although it had approached to within two miles of the place. The Germans had produced their usual quick defence. Before first light the GOC 164th German Light Division had stopped all retreating forces in the area, and was organising a delaying position there; panzer grenadier regiments were drawn from 15th Panzer Division and 90th German Light Division – the latter from north-west of Gabes; and Messe sent anti-aircraft artillery, both heavy and light, from Mareth. It has been estimated that 1st Armoured Division was just one hour too late, which supports General Freyberg ‘s early view that it should have set off before moonrise.

The going was harder than 1st Armoured Division expected, and the night move was correspondingly slower. On several occasions it had to reduce to a narrow front to cross wadis. Small actions took place with odd German groups of vehicles, and progressively as the night wore on more and more enemy tanks attacked the rear of the division, for after all 1st Armoured Division had passed right through the German lines. The division closed up to El Hamma village in daylight, and as it moved down the forward slope the enemy defences, particularly strong in anti-tank guns, proceeded to take toll. El Hamma was in a bottleneck between Djebel Tebaga on the west and Djebel Halouga on the east, both dominating heights, and there was little or no freedom of manoeuvre for an attacking force. Horrocks soon decided that it was too much for 1st Armoured Division to tackle alone, and informed Eighth Army that El Hamma could not be taken until NZ Corps caught up, which meant that an attack could not take place until midnight.

Shortly after 4.30 p.m. Freyberg received orders to move by moonlight to join 1st Armoured Division. Included in other details were fresh recognition signals for Allied ground forces, which in all the circumstances were badly wanted. Shortly afterwards a second message was received from Horrocks asking if Freyberg would be prepared to launch a second SUPERCHARGE against El Hamma with timing intervals similar to the first. Meanwhile NZ Corps, less 5th NZ Infantry Brigade Group and ‘L’ Force, was to close up to within a few miles.

At 6 p.m. General Freyberg replied with counter-proposals representing strongly that NZ Corps should branch off about ten miles short of El Hamma, and head east and north to Gabes, passing round the southern end of Djebel Halouga. The Corps would advance on a broad front, and Freyberg was clearly relying on the ability of his troops, including 8th Armoured Brigade, to move rapidly over broken country. Freyberg much preferred this course to going straight for El Hamma, where the enemy was in a position to contain both formations for perhaps a day or more. His proposal was in fact a reversion to the alternative plan (SIDEWINDOWS) which had appeared in NZ Corps ‘ Operation Order No. 1 on 16 March for action after the capture of PLUM, and it avoided the inevitable infantry losses of set-piece action.

Horrocks was prepared to agree with this proposal, but had doubts about the capacity of the Corps to cross the difficult ground on the direct route to Gabes. While the proposal was still under consideration General Freyberg arrived unexpectedly at General Horrocks’s Reconnaissance Headquarters, which was located close to Tactical Headquarters 1st Armoured Division. He had come forward in the darkness – it was then 2 a.m. on 28 March – for discussions. He seems to have done this entirely on his own initiative, as it was unknown to the staff of NZ Corps at the time, and no record of it appears in any New Zealand war diary. The discussion took place alongside the tank in which Horrocks was travelling, and cleared up all doubts. Horrocks agreed with Freyberg ‘s proposal as being the better arrangement, but said that he did not think Montgomery would like it as he had definitely made El Hamma the first objective and Gabes the second, and did not want any pockets of resistance remaining on the line of communication. The instructions to Horrocks had been to keep his force collected and well-balanced.

There is no doubt that General Freyberg ‘s wish to go direct to Gabes instead of piling up in column of formations in front of El Hamma was correct, and showed tactical sense combined with an understanding of what NZ Corps could do in the way of crosscountry travel. The alternative of following behind 1st Armoured Division with the prospect of another major attack was in no way appealing, and there was everything to be said for bypassing the El Hamma bottleneck, even on an inner flank.

Formal approval to Freyberg ‘s proposal was sent from 10th Corps at 4 a.m., but was not received at NZ Corps until after 6 a.m. In this message Horrocks repeated his qualms about Montgomery’s reactions, and asked Freyberg to convince Montgomery that the action was in accord with the Army plans. But communications’ between NZ Corps and Eighth Army were very poor at this time, and there is no evidence that Freyberg took any such action. In addition, at 5.10 a.m. on 28 March, Horrocks signalled Montgomery saying that Freyberg and he had met, and went on: ‘Plan at 0500 hrs. NZ Corps to move east at first light objective Gabes by centre line track Oglat Merteba – Gabes. 1st Armoured Division follow and turn south as in original plan. Wished obtain army commander’s approval but signal delays prevented. Reason for change strength of El Hamma bottleneck which prevents deployment. Request air cover for NZ move’.

To this Montgomery replied at 9.15 a.m.: ‘Do not repeat not direct 1st Armoured Division south from Gabes. Position your whole force about Gabes and to west and prevent northward movement. Recce from Gabes towards Mareth with armd cars. 30th Corps ordered to advance but not clear how completely enemy have evacuated Mareth position.’ From which it may be taken that Montgomery had tacitly accepted the change in plan for NZ Corps. Later in the day Horrocks flew to Army Headquarters for a brief visit, and presumably all plans were then co-ordinated.

New Zealand Corps advances

Late on 27 March, beginning about 8.30 p.m., NZ Corps moved forward a short distance but soon halted to await first light on 28 March. Information about the enemy showed that all German forces had gone from the Mareth Line except for rearguards, but the final words in Montgomery’s telegram to Horrocks showed some doubts. Other reports stated that 21st Panzer Division had moved to the El Hamma front, while 15th Panzer Division with an estimated fifteen tanks was east of Oglat Merteba trying to form a line along Wadi Merteba to keep open the corridor from Mareth to Gabes. The 10th Panzer Division was still facing the American thrust near Maknassy.

In point of fact, during the afternoon of 27 March 15th Panzer Division, disconcerted after its abortive counter-attack in the morning, gave up the idea of making a stand on Wadi Merteba and withdrew another ten miles north-east to Hir Zouitinat, where it was ordered to remain on 28 March and keep the passage open. During the night 27–28 March the last troops were withdrawn from the Mareth Line, and all non-motorised formations were sent direct to the Akarit position.

At dawn on 28 March NZ Corps, less 5th NZ Brigade Group and ‘L’ Force, resumed its advance in desert formation. The KDGs led, followed by Tactical Headquarters, comprising the GOC, GSO II, CRA, CRE, and a navigating party from 36th Survey Battery. Then followed 8th Armoured Brigade Group, Gun Group, 6th Infantry Brigade Group, Main Corps Headquarters, Reserve Group and Rear Corps Headquarters. Divisional Cavalry had remained well forward behind 1st Armoured Division, waiting to lead NZ Corps off on its new axis to the east and north.

Contact with the enemy was first made on the line of Wadi Merteba, where there was an enemy position. F Troop, 4th Field Regiment, attached to KDG, deployed, and after some shooting the armoured cars of KDG rounded up what was left of two complete Italian battalions, a total of 32 officers and 700 other ranks. The position was found to be quite well equipped with anti-tank guns, mortars, etc., but the defensive spirit of the Italians was very low, and in addition they were surprised by the arrival of NZ Corps in force. They came from 125th Regiment of Spezia Division, and had been sent by Messe to extend the El Hamma line to the south. The main part of their division was still on the coastal end of the enemy line, at this time just in front of Gabes.

By 11 a.m. the forward patrols had turned east and crossed Wadi Merteba south-west of Djebel Halouga. While reconnaissance was being made for suitable crossing places for the Corps, patrols were pushed out for some miles to the east and south. Five tanks had been reported to be moving up from the south, but they moved off to the east without making contact. Meanwhile bulldozers from 6 Field Company were improving the crossings over various small wadis, and other engineers were marking tracks for the advance, nine in all.

The 8th Armoured Brigade crossed the wadi and moved east for some four or five miles. All three regiments saw sporadic action and both sides had small tank losses, but the result of the advance was to press 15th Panzer Division back, and then threaten to outflank it on the side nearer Djebel Halouga. The going was bad, and one regiment comments particularly on the lack of time for maintenance, which meant that it had only fifteen runners left at the end of the day. A pursuit is always strenuous, alike to man and machine.

The gun group moved steadily, the only delay being shortly after 9 a.m., when 4th Field Regiment was deployed and stood by while the prisoners were being rounded up. The group then moved on, turned east, and by 2 p.m. was across Wadi Merteba, engaging odd targets of enemy infantry and transport until last light. Some support was also given to 8th Armoured Brigade.

Sixth Infantry Brigade Group advanced in nine columns, with 26th Battalion in the lead and the guns of 43rd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery deployed among the brigade. It was a tedious and tiring advance, with only spasmodic movement and in hot and dusty conditions. The leading battalion turned to the east at 12.15 p.m., and then the brigade halted for two hours, after which it was instructed to take up a position on the southern edge of Djebel Halouga in order to cover the armour, which would retire behind the infantry for the night.

The group began to move forward again at 2.30 p.m., but very slowly over difficult going. Shortly thereafter it was bombed by enemy Ju88s. Seven men were killed and twenty-two wounded, and two trucks were destroyed. Later two planes bombed and strafed the columns and fatally wounded the brigade intelligence officer.

Finally, Headquarters 6th NZ Infantry Brigade was established a few miles east of Oglat Merteba, and 26th Battalion, 31st Anti-Tank Battery and 3rd Machine-Gun Company formed a gun line, the battalion being on Point 222, a pronounced feature on the southern end of Djebel Halouga. The tanks of 8th Armoured Brigade then withdrew behind the battalion. The remainder of 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group had to reduce frontage and close up after dark, and it was 7 p.m. before the tail was across Wadi Merteba. The group made no contact with the enemy all day, nor during the night.

5th NZ Infantry Brigade Group on 28 March

When NZ Corps moved forward on 28 March, 5th NZ Brigade Group remained in the flanking position taken up the previous evening. The prisoners from the Point 209 battle had been rounded up the evening before, but did not reach Brigade Headquarters until the morning of the 28th. As a recognition of a worthy foe, Brigadier Kippenberger asked the commanding officer and the adjutant of the enemy battalion to breakfast, and had an interesting talk with the CO on the fighting of the previous few days, the adjutant interpreting. The CO was then given permission to address his men before they were marched off to the prisoner-of-war cage, and did so in a straight-forward and soldierly fashion. He and the adjutant were then sent off in a 15-cwt truck, and took with them, in the Brigade Major’s words, ‘the sympathy of those who watched, for they showed good qualities to the very end.’

During the previous night (27th–28th) there was no sign of any enemy activity, and it was clear that the usefulness of the flank position had ceased. At 9.55 a.m. NZ Corps ordered the brigade to move to an area to the south of Djebel Halouga, moving by the direct track from Point 209 to Oglat Merteba and thence towards Gabes.

At midday the group moved off with 21st Battalion and Tactical Headquarters leading. Owing to a mistake in navigation the column set off to the south-east instead of going at once to the north-east. The brigade commander quickly noted the mistake, but as there was a mass of transport ahead on the correct route, he said nothing and let the march go on, for he knew that another track more or less parallel to the first also led to Gabes. He thought, moreover, that there was nothing to be gained in piling up behind the rest of the Corps, and, on the lower level, was acting towards the main body of NZ Corps much as NZ Corps had acted towards 10th Corps. In other words he wanted to get ahead on his own. It is recounted that his intelligence officer was much relieved not to be ‘ticked off’ when he confessed the error.

So the column headed south-east for about five miles, and passed across the front of ‘L’ Force, which mistook them for the enemy and opened fire. There were no casualties, but two trucks in 21st Battalion were damaged.

The brigade had been warned of the presence of enemy tanks in the area ahead of it, so the 17-pounders of 32nd Anti-Tank Battery moved with Tactical Headquarters. But about 1.30 p.m., when it was definite that the group would be moving on a route farther to the east than that originally intended, the column was reorganised to cope the better with the risk. A special advanced guard was formed consisting of 29 Field Battery, one company from 21st Battalion, one section of 23 Battalion carriers, 21st Battalion antitank guns, and the 17-pounders of 32nd Battery, all under the command of Major D. J. Robertson of 32nd Battery. The 6th Field Regiment was also moved up to the front of the column ahead of 21 Battalion. About this time a squadron of armoured cars from King’s Dragoon Guards, under Major P. D. Chrystal (who, it will be remembered, had reconnoitred Chrystal’s Rift), which was patrolling east of the El Hamma road, joined the column unofficially and remained with it for the next twenty-four hours.

The crossing over Wadi el Melab was found to be mined, and had to be passed on a one-vehicle front while the engineers made additional crossings. Three bombs were dropped amongst the transport of 23rd Battalion at this crossing, and three men were killed and nine wounded.

Towards dusk the advanced guard took up a position almost due south of that occupied by 26th Battalion of 6 Brigade, but five miles distant, for the course taken by 5th NZ Brigade was at this point about five miles south of the one originally intended. At last light one battery went into action against a group of enemy tanks directly ahead, but the light was against successful shooting. The battalions were then disposed astride the track behind the advanced guard, 28th on the right, 21st in the centre, and 23rd on the left. Normal precautions were taken, but patrols sent forward found only vacated enemy positions. At 8.30 p.m. the brigade was instructed to rejoin the main body on 29 March.

The result of the day’s advance for NZ Corps as a whole was reasonably good, for the going was bad. Much enemy equipment was captured, including thirty-four guns, among them three of the detested 88-millimetre.

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The Enemy on 28 March

On the Mareth front the enemy had completely withdrawn, with 30th Corps following up as fast as mining and demolitions would allow. He had restored some sort of order to the shattered line facing 10th Corps and NZ Corps and there was a reasonably continuous line between El Hamma and the sea. Liebenstein Group, consisting of 164th German Light Division, 21st Panzer Division and some units of 90th German Light Division, was on the enemy right covering El Hamma. Then came the remnants of Italian Pistoia Division, the bulk of 90th German Light, and finally Italian Spezia Division in front of Gabes. But in the afternoon Pistoia Division was sent to the rear and 90th German Light took over its sector.

The 15th Panzer Division, in an advanced position opposing NZ Corps, was forced back during the day. The enemy high command – Messe or Bayerlein – decided that it could no longer withstand the pressure of what amounted to two armoured divisions and would have to leave El Hamma. This withdrawal started in the afternoon, to a line behind Gabes, east and west through Oudref. All troops except 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions and 164th German Light Division were to go straight back to the Akarit position; but these were to make a stand on the intermediate line and were to leave strong rearguards behind them.

The enemy had again avoided encirclement, and all except the rearguards were out of the Mareth position and for the moment safe in the Chotts area. But SUPERCHARGE had been alarming to the troops in the Mareth Line, and nearly catastrophic to those at Tebaga, with the result that all withdrawals were faster than usual, indeed so fast that the effectiveness of their delaying measures by mine and demolition was much less than usual. Had it not been for the sanctuary of the Akarit line the enemy would have been kept on the run. The truth was that at last the continued defeats and retirements had weakened the enemy’s physical power to resist, except where the ground might prove eminently suitable for defence. But while the Italians had obviously had enough, the morale of the Germans was as high as ever.

10th Corps ‘ Orders

In the early afternoon of 28 March 10th Corps issued orders prescribing action to be taken by NZ Corps and 1st Armoured Division to capture El Hamma and advance to the line Gabes – El Hamma. The first phase was for NZ Corps to reach the line of the track running from Bir Zeltene to El Hamma (i.e., through Hir Zouitinat) while 1st Armoured Division manoeuvred in the approaches to El Hamma. The second phase was for NZ Corps to occupy the Gabes oasis, while 1st Armoured Division moved round the south of Djebel Halouga and came up on the west of NZ Corps. There were instructions to NZ Corps about the early entry into Gabes of advanced landing ground construction parties and airfield defence units, some of which were to join the Corps and move with it. New Zealand Corps remained responsible for containing the enemy in the Djebel Melab area, where ‘L’ Force still remained.

But during the afternoon events moved faster than expected. New Zealand Corps was almost up to Hir Zouitinat, the enemy was evacuating the Mareth Line with all speed, and the first phase of the order was virtually completed. The order was then amended to give 10th Corps (including NZ Corps) the objective El Hamma to west of Gabes. New Zealand Corps was given a series of bounds northwards across the Gabes – El Hamma road, with its axis about midway between the two towns. The 1st Armoured Division’s move round the south of Djebel Halouga was cancelled. Horrocks emphasised that ‘No major action or attack will be undertaken, as the policy now is to conserve our resources of men and material. The enemy will be dislodged by manoeuvre and fire’. The amendment stated that 51st (Highland) Division was advancing up the main road towards Gabes, and that 4th Indian Division would advance to Gabes from Zeltene.

We see here an example of what can happen when by force of events a headquarters gets out of the picture. Tenth Corps Headquarters had followed 1st Armoured Division, in spite of Freyberg ‘s suggestion that it should remain farther back, and when NZ Corps went off to the north-east, 10th Corps ‘ control over it was very tenuous. In any case events moved so rapidly on that day of 28 March that, not for the first time in desert warfare, formal orders with ‘phases’ could not keep pace, and only the most general directive met the case. Considerable latitude had to be given to subordinate commanders. Freyberg left unaltered his axis of advance through Gabes.

Gabes Captured

In the early morning of 29 March 1st Armoured Division found that El Hamma had been evacuated, and NZ Corps also found the enemy gone, leaving only a small hastily-constructed minefield. The Corps’ main column moved forward shortly after first light, with KDG patrols on the right and Divisional Cavalry patrols on the left, followed by 8th Armoured Brigade. There were no signs of the enemy during the whole day except for two small groups of tanks away to the north. The axis of advance was just south of Zemlet el Gueloua, and then towards Gabes. Some five miles south on a parallel axis was 5th NZ Infantry Brigade Group, so that the Corps in effect was advancing on a two-brigade front. But in Brigadier Kippenberger ‘s words, 5th NZ Brigade had ‘stolen the lead’ and it is their adventures that lend colour to the day.

The brigade began its advance at 6.30 a.m., preceded by B Squadron, KDG. Then followed the advanced guard, tactical headquarters and 6 Field Regiment, and 23rd, 21st, and 28th Battalions. They moved 15 miles before meeting any opposition, and were then held up by concrete strongpoints (‘pillboxes’) covering the road from Matmata to Gabes a few miles south of Gabes. Quick action by anti-tank and field guns flushed the enemy and the advance continued, but with 23rd Battalion now immediately behind the advanced guard, as it seemed possible that the battalion might have to clear the town. A detachment of 7 Field Company was also brought forward to search for mines and booby traps.

It will be remembered that NZ Corps had been told to bypass Gabes and turn north, but Freyberg preferred to keep his wheeled traffic on the better going that led through Gabes and diverted only Divisional Cavalry, KDG and 8th Armoured Brigade. These were directed to the west of Gabes while still some six or seven miles away from the town. To prevent congestion at the south of Gabes, Freyberg, during the morning, sent Kippenberger a message instructing him to bypass Gabes also. But the message was not received until the concrete strongpoints had been overcome, and, partly because he could see the way into Gabes open and hoped to cut off some enemy troops, and partly because at the point the brigade had now reached the country to the west of the town was seen to be closely planted and well-nigh impassable for wheeled transport, Kippenberger carried on. These few hours on 29 March show an atmosphere of excitement, exhilaration and desire to get to the front, not only within NZ Corps but throughout Eighth Army, that enlivened the grim business of beating the enemy.

Armoured cars of the KDG and 23rd Battalion carriers entered Gabes just as the rearguard from 15th Panzer Division was blowing up the bridge at the northern exit, and in fact a few dilatory Germans were captured at the crossing. The brigade commander arrived shortly after the armoured cars. The town was seething with excitement, and indeed the troops were also excited, for this was the first time that Eighth Army had liberated an Allied town.

The head of 30th Corps now also neared Gabes, and the corps commander, Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese, joined Kippenberger at the blown bridge. And soon afterwards Lieutenant-General Freyberg and his Tactical Headquarters also entered Gabes, having already seen the Brigade Major of 5th NZ Brigade, who had had the delicate task of explaining to the GOC why 5th NZ Brigade had blocked the NZ Corps ‘ axis by moving directly on Gabes.

There were thus signs of impending congestion at the entrance to Gabes, for 51st (H) Division was only a few miles away, and 4th Indian Division had reached El M’dou on the Matmata road. However, it was arranged that 10th Corps should take the lead, and that NZ Corps should pass through Gabes. The 1st Armoured Division was to bypass the town well to the west and would then advance on the left of NZ Corps.

The armour of NZ Corps was meanwhile advancing to the west of Gabes, where 8th Armoured Brigade, after desultory exchanges of fire with enemy tanks, finished the day just west of Metouia while Divisional Cavalry turned towards Gabes to complete the encirclement.

The first task was to get 5th Infantry Brigade Group through Gabes. A temporary crossing was being made over the stream of the Wadi Gabes at the northern exit, the first steps being made by civilians throwing stones into the bed after Brigadier Kippenberger had given a lead. Now engineers from 7th Field Company and working parties from infantry units joined in. The advanced guard managed to get across upstream, although the banks got progressively higher and steeper, and carried on the pursuit up the main road. Here the six-pounder anti-tank guns in the advanced guard, firing from the northern edge of the Bou Chemma oasis, found good targets among enemy vehicles and later armoured cars, destroying two of the latter. The KDG and Divisional Cavalry ran into minor trouble north of Bou Chemma, being held up by mines on the road, and it appeared that the enemy was holding a position in front of Metouia and Oudref – the ‘intermediate line’4 – prior to going back into the Akarit position.

Fifth Brigade advanced guard halted north of Bou Chemma while traffic congestion in Gabes was sorted out. By 1.30 p.m. 23 Battalion was across the temporary causeway and had reached Bou Chemma, where it dispersed to the right of the road. The 6th Field Regiment arrived shortly after and by 2 p.m. was in action, although there were few targets. Back in Gabes 42nd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery was in action against enemy aircraft attacking traffic at the crossing, but considering the targets offered enemy air activity was negligible.

Fifth Brigade Headquarters got through Gabes by late afternoon, 21st Battalion shortly after dark, and 28th Battalion finally by 4 a.m. on 30 March after struggling through the town most of the night, with the added discomfort of heavy rain. The brigade was then concentrated between Bou Chemma and the coast, with 23rd Battalion forming an outpost line just south-west of Rhennouch, which was reported clear. Tactical Headquarters NZ Corps arrived just north of Bou Chemma in the afternoon, but all the rest of the Corps was still south of Gabes at last light. The 4th Field Regiment crossed the stream during the night over a new causeway made by 7th Field Company, and arrived north of Bou Chemma early on 30 March, having been given special priority of movement.

The immediate intention of Eighth Army was to get NZ Corps forward as a first step in what was hoped would be a speedy move to Sfax. Army Intelligence thought that the enemy would not delay at Wadi Akarit if hard pressed, an example of the over-optimism that marked it about this time. In any case a limiting factor to the Corps’ activities was the Army Commander’s wish, now repeated in a message from 10th Corps, that neither NZ Corps nor 1st Armoured Division should incur heavy losses, especially in tanks. This wish expressed only a short-term view, however, and was in preparation for the future role of both formations in operations against the Akarit line. In other words, they were to conserve their efforts for the next few days, in readiness for an unrestricted effort in the near future.

The Enemy on 29 March

It is difficult to clarify the movements of the enemy formations about this time. The general policy was for rearguards from German units to resist strongly while first the Italians and then the Germans went back into the Akarit position. At this moment the fighting value of the Italians was virtually nil, and the defence was left to the German group, 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, and 90th and 164th German Light Divisions. Of these, 164th German Light had been almost shattered at Tebaga and all formations were much intermingled. Often the armoured units of 15th and 21st Panzer were on a different sector from the unarmoured.

By daylight on 29 March the four German divisions had rearguards on the El Hamma – Gabes line, in order from west to east 164th Light, 21st Panzer, 90th Light and 15th Panzer, the last-named having taken over the sector previously held by Spezia Division. The transport situation about this time is described by one formation as ‘catastrophic’, and a day later Bayerlein reports quite simply, ‘164th Light Division had to walk as it had no MT’. By midday on 29 March the pressure from Eighth Army – mostly from NZ Corps – was strong enough to force the rearguards to give up this line and go back to the intermediate line through Oudref. Even here there was no respite, for the pressure in the afternoon, from both NZ Corps and 1st Armoured Division, was so strong that the enemy headquarters decided to withdraw all troops forthwith to the Akarit position. But for the advantage of this semi-prepared position on a narrow front with secure flanks, it seems that the enemy might well have been kept on the run, instead of having seven or eight days’ respite.

The End of the SUPERCHARGE Phase

On 30 March KDG and Divisional Cavalry, each with a battery and an engineer detachment under command, moved forward through Oudref and their advanced patrols reached the south bank of Wadi Akarit. A few prisoners and abandoned vehicles were captured. The going through Metouia and Oudref was not easy, there were many steep-sided marshy wadis, patrols got across only with difficulty, and obviously much engineer work would be wanted before NZ Corps could cross on anything other than a narrow frontage.

Enemy movement could be seen to the north of Wadi Akarit, and there were clear signs that the enemy was not only holding the northern bank, but also that he was there in strength. The 25th and 26th Batteries and Mac Troop were in action north of Oudref in the early afternoon, and were shelled spasmodically in return, but otherwise there was no contact with the enemy.

The 8th Armoured Brigade operated north-west of Oudref, its most advanced regiment moving quite some distance towards and even across the upper part of Wadi Akarit. But it was stopped by enemy demolitions. It came back with a gun captured from 21st Panzer Division.

Still farther west, 1th Armoured Division cleared El Hamma and by the evening of 30 March had advanced as far as the foothills of Djebel Zemlet el Beida, ten miles to the north. There it ran into increasingly strong defences, and no more progress was possible.

For NZ Corps engineering work had first priority – crossings over wadis and demolitions, clearing minefields and road verges, etc. This meant working round the clock, and all three field companies and the field park company took their share. The biggest demolition of many, on the main road near Oudref, was not ready for traffic until 9 a.m. on 31 March.

In all ranks of the Corps morale was high. They were once more in sight of the sea, in a cultivated countryside now becoming steadily greener with the onset of spring. Fifth Brigade Group quickly discovered warm thermal waters in its area and the dust and grime of recent weeks soon disappeared. During 30 March the brigade moved round the west of Djebel ed Aissa to a position two miles south of Oudref. There was some talk of an attack to test the Akarit defences, but the brigade commander was not in favour of a serious attack, and succeeded in getting approval for patrols only, which 21st Battalion provided.

The move forward of 6th NZ Brigade Group was much hindered by stoppages cause by the density of traffic in and around Gabes. It was intended that the brigade should move through on the night 29–30 March, but after about one and a half hours’ progress, Brigadier Gentry halted until first light as the going was so bad and the traffic so dense. Main Headquarters NZ Corps, also on the way forward, struggled on through the night, and finally reached a point west of Bou Chemma early on 30 March.

Sixth Infantry Brigade was not clear of Gabes until mid-afternoon, and even then only 24th and 26th Battalions reached their new area – south-west of Bou Chemma – by last light. The 25th Battalion did not arrive until the morning of 1 April, by which time the brigade had closed up on the rear of 5 Brigade. They were now near enough to the sea to be sent there for a swim, which for all New Zealanders was a special treat.

Most of the Reserve Group gradually assembled west of Gabes, and the various administrative units opened replenishment points there, but the congestion of transport made it very difficult to find suitable locations.

The whole Corps was concentrated in the new area by 31 March. At 5 p.m. on that day NZ Corps lost its identity, and 2 NZ Division came under 30 Corps for operations and 10th Corps for administration. The 8th Armoured Brigade and certain other units remained with the Division, but the French Group passed to the direct command of 10th Corps. Activities in no way ceased, and 31 March was a day of patrolling and other preparations for the next stage. The Mareth operations, however, were over.

On 30 March General Montgomery sent the following message to Lieutenant-General Freyberg:

“My very best congratulations to NZ Corps and 10 Corps on splendid results achieved by the left hook. These results have led to the complete disintegration of the enemy resistance and the whole Mareth position. Give my congratulations to all your officers and men, and tell them how pleased I am with all they have done.”

It remains to record the cost. Of the offensive weapons, the most marked loss was in tanks. Over a period from 21 to 31 March 8th Armoured Brigade lost thirty-one Shermans and Grants, and twenty Crusaders, roughly one-third of the strength with which it had started.

The total casualties of New Zealand troops were 646, made up as follows:

Killed Wounded Missing
Offrs ORs Offrs ORs Offrs ORs
10 115 29 444 – 48

The ‘attached troops’ – 8th Armoured Brigade, KDG, ‘L’ Force, etc. – suffered 299 casualties over the same period. The Desert Air Force had lost only seven or eight pilots, a clear vindication of Broadhurst’s policy.

Tebaga in Retrospect

The initial attack of the Mareth /Tebaga operations took place at Mareth on 20 March. By 27 March, one week later, the enemy was in full retreat, in considerable disorganisation, and in no fit state to make another effective stand until, over a fortnight later, he was among the hills at Enfidaville. It is certainly not easy, and rarely is it safe, to prophesy with certainty the outcome on the field of battle. Nevertheless, it is probable that this victory could have been achieved more swiftly and could have been even more damaging to the enemy.

General Freyberg ‘s handling of the Tebaga Gap operations in the early stage now seems curiously hesitant, and there is no doubt that a quick thrust through the weak defences there on 21 and 22 March would have yielded rich dividends, with highly favourable repercussions at Mareth. The risk had been correctly assessed and the New Zealand Corps should have been well able to deal with any enemy reaction beyond the Gap. Delay at Tebaga allowed the enemy to offer far more resistance to 30th Corps than the Eighth Army plan envisaged.

The delay, though, was the product of several factors, none of them inconsiderable. For one thing, the GOC thought that the 30th Corps attack was on much too narrow a front, and from the outset was therefore dubious of a quick success at Mareth.

Manpower, always a matter which weighed heavily with General Freyberg, was another factor. The latest draft of reinforcements – the first for fifteen months – had been absorbed, yet the Division was still short of 2400 men in an establishment of 16,000. This compared favourably enough with other divisions, both Allied and enemy, but the 2nd NZEF was a national force whose fate had already trembled in the balance, and further serious losses could lead to its entire withdrawal from the Middle East theatre.

Further, if the New Zealand Corps emerged at once beyond the Gap, could the GOC rely on his own armour? The course of events at Sidi Rezegh, Minqar Qaim, Ruweisat and El Mreir was not yet overshadowed by more recent successes, evidence was still freely available that the 88-millimetre gun continued to dominate the battlefield, and at the end of a long and partially unprotected line of communication there was still an element of chance that the armour, a brittle arm, could suffer crippling losses at the hands of the concentrated panzer divisions, depleted though they were.

The burden of decision rested squarely on General Freyberg ‘s shoulders, and he seems to have kept it there, for no record has been discovered that he discussed the problem with any of his subordinate commanders, although of course there was no call on him to do so. Nor apparently did he warn Eighth Army of any conditions likely to impede the rapid execution of his task, an action which, in the circumstances, it might have been wiser to take, although it is uncertain whether he realised the harmful effects of delay at Tebaga. Altogether, the combined circumstances of the occasion seem to have exercised a cramping effect on his initiative.

An early, full and vigorous thrust at Tebaga would almost certainly have achieved success both at Tebaga and on the 30th Corps front. Failure to provide this created a situation in which the Army Commander was bound to intervene.

The breakthrough operation at Tebaga, once mounted, created a new standard in co-operation between infantry and armour and the Air Force. It closely resembled the Germans’ own ‘blitzkrieg’ and was indeed more closely integrated, and thus more damaging, than the thrusts which had decimated and scattered the Eighth Army earlier in the war. The terrain confined the power of the thrust almost entirely to the floor of the Gap, and here the Air Force concentrated its close support, strafing and bombing, while the artillery barrage, weighty and devastating, pounded irresistibly to the objective and beyond. The path of the armour and the infantry was well paved, but they, in any case, were not to be denied. A new pattern was set for the future, and a new standard produced by which co-operation between ground and air could henceforward be measured.

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