The Mareth Line 20 – 26 March 1943
The Mareth Line was a system of fortifications approximately twenty-two miles long, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Matmata Mountains, which ran north-south protecting the Axis right flank, in southern Tunisia. It had been built by the French in the late 1930’s in order to keep the Italians out of Tunisia, and was often referred to as ‘the Maginot Line of Africa’.
The Germans had increased the defences which now included concrete blockhouses and steel cupolas. The concrete gun positions covered every approach across the Wadi Zigzaou, which was immediately to the south of the Line. The Wadi was a dried watercourse, but was sometimes quite a deep river, and was largely impassable to any vehicles, including tanks. In some places the banks were sheer and as much as 12 feet deep. In areas the Germans had steepened and deepened the Wadi, they had also dug and anti-tank ditch twenty feet wide and eight feet deep.
One of the German commanders, Oberleutnant Heinz-Ubner Schmidt was “delighted” by the protection offered by the concrete bunkers, he said they were:
practically shell and bomb proof. But among them were bunkers that had been constructed with an eye for cover rather than for field of fire. Others had no loopholes. Then, too, most of them had been planned to house French 25mm and 47mm anti-tank guns and were too small for our 50mm and 75mm guns which we had to leave behind the bunker line, There were a number of machine-gun and mortar positions ready in the centre of the trench system – constructed in the sandstone ground.
Major-General Douglas Wimberley, Divisional Commander of the 50 (Highland) Division, later recorder he was:
most struck by the strength of the Mareth Defences. Not only was there plenty of concrete to be seen, but there were complete communication trenches, and forward saps, such as reminded me of the 1914-18 war.
In front of the Wadi Zigzaou the Axis forces had planted hundreds of Teller anti-tank mines and bouncing S-mines.
Manning the garrison, under the Italian General Giovanni Messe who for two years had been the officer commanding the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia, was among others the 22 Italian Division, the 10 German Infantry Battalion and the 15 Panzer Division, a total of nine divisions, 80,000 men with 150 tanks (including those with 10 Panzer Division which was in reserve), and 680 guns.
When the French Built the Line of defences, with the quality of motor transport available it was determined by them that the line could not be flanked via the Matmata Mountains. The Long Range Desert Group, in 1943, found a way through, which meant a 160 mile journey leading to a narrow pass. The pass was two miles wide between, at the north end, the Matmata Mountains and the Djebel Tebaga, at the south, beyond was El Hamma, and was called the Tebaga Gap. The gap had been recognised by the Romans as a potential point of penetration, so they built a wall there for protection.
The gap had been fortified by the Axis forces, and was manned by the Saharan Group which was commanded by the Italian, General Mannierini, and consisted of what Messe described as units ‘picked up here and there’. The group consisted of a ‘Savona Brigade’ and various companies largely drawn from frontier guards and remnants of garrison posts in southern Libya. The troops were not particularly well organised.
General Bernard Law Montgomery, the officer commanding the British Eighth Army, had been preparing his plans for the attack on Mareth before the Eighth Army had arrived at Medenine, the proposed plan being set by 27 February, 1943, and was called OPERATION PUGILIST.
PUGILIST split the Eighth Army into two corps for the frontal attack:
XXX Corps, with the 50 (Northumbrian), 51 (Highland) and 4 Indian Division with the 201 Guards Brigade
X Corps, with the 1 and 7 Armoured Divisions.
The plan called for XXX Corps to make a very heavy attack on the northeast of the Line, near the coast, to break into and then roll up the line from the right. X Corps, initially the Army Reserve, would then be ready to ‘exploit success’ by passing through and advancing towards Gabes and Sfax.
With the establishment that a flanking manoeuvre was possible, provision was made for this, and the outflanking troops were to consist mainly of the New Zealand Division with the 8 Armoured Brigade and General LeClerc’s “L” Force under command, the force provisionally designated the New Zealand Corps.
The outflanking force was required to establish itself across the Gabes-Mareth Road in order to cut off the Axis Force and prevent its escape. The New Zealand Corps would have to break through the subsidiary defensive line, consisting mainly of minefields constructed between Gebel Tebaga and Gebel Meleb.
D-Day for OPERATION PUGILIST was set as 20 March.
There were numerous preliminary operations designed to drive in Axis outposts on the nights of the 16 and 17 March. These were generally successful, except for the operation by the 201 Guards Brigade, which resulted in heavy casualties when they became involved in minefields.
The New Zealand Corps, less Leclerc’s “L” Force, assembled a few miles east of Medenine, and was to set off from a staging area between Ben Gardane and Foum Tatahouine, where dumps of petrol had been arranged so that units could replenish, and move from here to the assembly point, about 70 miles.
The move forward towards the staging area was to be by night, but there were delays owing to the ‘opening and closing of columns in the darkness and without headlights’. All units assembled without incident and were ready to start their march on the 18 March.
At 1800 on 19 March, the New Zealand Corps began to advance in desert formation on a nine mile front at a speed of 8m.i.h (miles in the hour). The move to the next staging area, about 30 miles, was completed just after midnight.
By nightfall on the 20 March the Corps was a few miles short of the Tebaga Gap. They had travelled without concealment in an attempt to divert attention from the preparations being made by XXX Corps for the attack scheduled for 20 March.
At 2230 on 20 March the attack by XXX Corps began when 50 (Northumberland) Division advanced to assault undercover of very heavy artillery fire, following an air bombardment. Wadi Zigzaou in this sector was very deep and steep sided with a muddy bottom. Members of the Durham Light Infantry were carrying scaling ladders to assist with climbing the walls of the Wadi and the anti-tank ditch beyond.
An officer carrying a hurricane lamp, led minesweeping Scorpion tanks towards the Wadi Zigzaou, where the water was eight feet deep in places. Valentine tanks followed, with their crews dumping dozens of facines (dense bundles of sticks) into the Wadi, in an attempt to give tanks greater purchase. Four Valentines successfully negotiated the minefields and Wadi, the fifth stalled blocking the gap cut in the minefield.
By first light on the 21 March, portions of the attacking infantry had established a shallow bridgehead. The bridgehead was one mile wide and half a mile deep, weather hampered any air support. The Italians intensified their artillery barrage, and the Young Fascists were reinforced by German Grenadiers and artillery.
Oberleutnant Schmidt had to rally is battalion following the opening barrage, but the sandstone sides of the trenches had collapsed in places and he was
scrambling over shattered masonry or heaps of rock, even leaping over dud enemy shells. I reached one of the lower bunkers in the centre of the of the sector on the lip of the Wadi Zigzaou. A number of the detachment there lay dead round their gun. In front of the bunker entrance and a little to one side, in a trench, I came across two soldiers who had been slightly wounded. ‘Tanks on the rise immediately ahead of us!’ one shouted to me. I did not know him – he must have been one of the replacements. ‘The tanks have destroyed our bunker armour with direct hits,’ he shouted again. ‘It is suicide to remain in the bunker.
The men were ordered to occupy a weapons pit which was dug next to their wrecked bunker and Schmidt scrambled inside to drag out the machine-gun, the two men were dead when he emerged. The British attacked,
They are lying in front of our trench. Now the game was on. Men raced about the trenches giving the immediate alert: ‘Infantry attacking – weapons in position!’ In a few seconds the machine-guns that the enemy artillery had not blotted out were blazing away criss-cross over the front…belt after belt whipped through the guns.
Schmidt’s forward company which was on a slight ahead of the main defensive line was overrun by Valentines and most were taken prisoner or killed. The main position held, although small groups of British infantry got into the lines and captured one bunker with some additional trenches.
The continuing rain on the 22 March added to the difficulties for the British infantry. The Axis forces put in a heavy counter-attack at 1310 using the entire 15 Panzer Division and part of the 90 Light Division, in three columns, from an assembly area seven miles north-west of Wadi Zigzaou.
On the 50 (Northumberland) Division front, some combatants were fighting hand to hand. Axis resistance was stiffening. Panzers were supporting infantry in local counter attacks. The under gunned Valentines was killed and they began to take heavy casualties.
Two infantry battalions attacked, surrounding the bridgehead so tightly the Desert Air Force feared killing British soldiers, and again were unable to assist the 50 (Northumberland) Division. Thirty-five Valentines were reduced to smoking hulks.
In Schmidt’s sector, his men forced the British out and began to take prisoners.
One doctor bandaged a young English Lieutenant who had been wounded. “What are you still fighting for?” The Englishman demanded. “We have an overwhelming superiority of men and materials. It is only a question of days or weeks and the war will be over for you anyhow.” We refused to believe this and laughed at his optimism.
By nightfall the bridgehead was almost lost and the 50 (Northumberland) Division was preparing to withdraw to their start line. On the night of 23 March the troops fell back, on orders, across the Wadi Zigzaou undercover of artillery fire.
At 0200 on 23 March, General Oliver W. H. Leese had reported to Montgomery, that the 50 (Northumberland) Division had pulled nearly all surviving troops back across the Wadi and the follow-on attack by X Corps was cancelled. This meant the focus of the plan now shifted to the outflanking manoeuvre under the command of Freyberg.
It was planned for the New Zealand Corps to make a serious threat in the Gabes-Matmata Road on the night of the 20/21 March, the same night that XXX Corps was to commence the offensive against the Mareth Line. The outflanking and frontal attacks were two parts of the one offensive which, for success, required action as one event. Any hesitation of either part would cause failure.
The attack was due to occur on the night of 20-21 March, with the Gap being forced early on the morning of the 21 March. The New Zealand Corps was in position for the attack about twelve hours early, and Freyberg determined to move at first light on 21 March, and requested that his objective – codenamed PLUM, be bombed at 0800 thereby losing any advantage.
The plan was for the King’s Dragoon Guards to reconnoitre the enemy line at first light, and for the 8 Armoured Brigade to move at 0700 and to break through the eastern end of the defences. The pace of the attack was lagging and the planned infantry attack was postponed.
The Divisional Cavalry began operations at 0610 and established patrols on a six mile radius. It was in touch with French patrols at it’s southern point, the French reaching as far south as the Hallouf Pass.
The King’s Dragoon Guards reconnoitred well up to the Axis lines, and the 8 Armoured Brigade advanced towards the eastern end of the Axis positions, but was halted by a combination of mines and shellfire.
PLUM was bombed at 0800, but the bombardment was insufficient to all the tanks, unsupported by infantry, to get through.
The rest of the day was a day of reconnaissance, and by afternoon it was established the Axis defences followed the line of the Roman Wall. By the middle of the afternoon plans were formulated for the infantry to force a way through the minefield, thereby allowing the tanks to push through. At the time of formulation it was erroneously believed that the Germans had arrived in the line.
At 2200 the artillery opened fire and the infantry advanced. The Axis forces did not open fire until the twenty-one minute concentration was over, and the forward companies were ahead of the Axis lines, the advance was not held up. Soon after midnight the objectives were reached.
The attack had shown good planning and was an outstanding success.
Further developments allowed the 8 Field Company to fill an anti-tan ditch and to prepare lanes through a minefield. The squadron of tanks under command of 6 Brigade started to move up behind 25 Battalion at 0230. Before daylight all supporting arms for the attack had been brought forward and were in place. In the first hours of daylight, the combined efforts of the various infantry weapons and a supporting tank, caused a large amount of damage and led to the surrender of a further 400 Italians and a wedge had been driven through PLUM.
It was at this point that an opportunity has apparently been lost, and if 8 Armoured Brigade had passed through at 0300 it may have disrupted the Italian position and been through the four mile length of gap by daylight.
Over the next four days – 22 to 25 March – the actions of the New Zealand Corp were similar, inching forward in the centre and flanks, with exploratory reconnaissance on either flank. The total advance in the centre was only 1500 yards, because by the evening of the 22 March the 21 Panzer Division had arrived, as had the 164 Light Division on the 23.
On the 23 March, Freyberg was alerted to a change in plans by Montgomery, and that the flanking move was to become the main focus of the attack. It was decided that the three divisions under Leese in XXX Corps were to remain on the coast to occupy the defenders at Mareth, while Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks of X Corps was to assume command of the new plan to be called SUPERCHARGE II, with Montgomery telling Freyberg “Am sending Horrocks to take charge. Am sure you will understand.”
Horrocks’ force was to consist of X Corps Headquarters with the 1 Armoured Division, it was to move off after duck on the 23 March and was expected to join with the New Zealand Corps on 25 March, a force of 300 tanks.
At the same time the 4 Indian Division, under XXX Corps was to thrust into the mountains to the west of the Matmata Mountains. The objective of this move was twofold – to open the road from Medenine to Bir Soltane via Ksar El Hallouf as a shorter route of supply for X Corps, and to advance along the spine of the Matmata Mountains to cut the Mareth-Gabes Road.
The 5 Brigade of the 4 Indian Division and the 1 Armoured Division entered Medenine at the same time, with the former being held up. It was held up even further by a brigade of the 7 Armoured Division following the 1 Armoured Division.
Both of the 7 and 5 Brigades of the 4 Indian Division got to Hallouf Pass on the night of 24/25 March. By the evening of the 25 March, most of Horrocks’ force was at the Tebaga Gap. Progress had been slow due to congestion, the difficult terrain and mechanical issues. Jack Merewood of the Queen’s Bays, part of 1 Armoured Division, thought the area was one of the worst ‘we had ever attempted to cross; and to make matters worse, there were in addition locusts flying about in thick black clouds.’ The Bays history noting that vehicle after vehicle got stuck in the soft sand.
SUPERCHARGE II basically boiled down to the following; the initial attack was to be made by the New Zealand Corps with the 8 Armoured Brigade leading at 1600 to a depth of 4,000 yards. The 1 Armoured Division would then pass through and advance to the El Hamma area.
At 15:30 on 26 March the forward units of the New Zealand Corps set off orange flares to denote their positions, overhead the Desert Air Force appeared and for thirty minutes bombed and strafed the Axis positions, in a relay of fighter-bombers which first bombed and then strafed anything that moved. The bombardment was organised such that there was always at least two squadrons of fighters over the area at any one time.
Thirty minutes later, the Corps artillery with two hundred field and medium guns opened fire. This was followed by the advance of the 8 Armoured Brigade and the 3 Battalion of the New Zealand Infantry. The barrage was arranged to lift at a rate of 100 yards per minute for the first 1,000 yards.
The tanks were attacking out of the setting sun, followed by the stirred up dust caused by the movement of the tanks. The Axis forces did not react until about 1615. The artillery response, must have had the tank commanders thinking that they had caught up with the artillery barrage, so they halted, which was quickly rectified and they moved on after a pause of a few minutes.
The attackers reached their first objective without too much difficulty, with the infantry following the tanks, and in some cases catching rides on the back of the tans, as in the case of some members of the 28 (Maori) Battalion who caught rides with the Sherwood Rangers.
The smooth advance of the Sherwood Rangers was interrupted as the leading tanks reached POINT 209. As the tanks banked up and veered around to the left flank anti-tank guns opened fire. ‘B’ Squadron of the Sherwood Rangers bore the brunt with three Shermans hit.
The 28 (Maori) Battalion were to attack and take POINT 209. ‘C’ Company were ordered by their commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Benet, to swing right and capture POINT 209, while the other three companies were to ‘dig-in’ and establish a firm bas.
It now became clear that what the Maori had thought was POINT 209 was in fact a lower crest of the feature, POINT 209 actually had two significant rises and was much deeper and more heavily defended than expected.
Captain Peta Awatare of ‘C’ Company, organised his men for the attack, 13 Platoon were to go around the hill to the right, 14 Platoon to the left, and 15 Platoon to head straight up the centre towards the summit.
15 Platoon got pinned down near the foot of the hill, while 13 and 14 platoons reached points near the crest. The commander of 14 Platoon, Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu had already destroyed two machine-gun posts single-handed and his men two more, clearing their side of the ridge.
The Germans on the ridge counter-attacked, supported by machine-gun and mortar fire, on a number of occasions which were withstood with severe losses to ‘C’ Company. Captain Awatare had been wounded, and refused to leave the Point until his ‘wounded leg had swollen so much that he could only crawl’, Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu had also been wounded but had been given permission to stay.
Battalion support arms came up after dark and hot food was distributed at 2000, even to the men of ‘C’ Company who were within earshot of the enemy. The report was eventually mad that POINT 209 had fallen.
By this time, the main attack had reached the final objective, and at 1800 the tanks of the 1 Armoured Division had passed through the 8 Armoured Brigade, and by night fall was almost four miles beyond the final objective.
The 1 Armoured Division then halted until the moon rose and continued its advance to El Hamma, passing through the remnants of the 64 Light Division and the 21 Panzer Division.
There was still fighting on POINT 209, with the Maori and Germans only about twenty yards apart, the former were alerted to counter attacks by the sound of footsteps, when the men of 13 and 14 platoons would throw hand grenades. Ngarimu moved around to each platoon as needed, in one such case, he had moved to 14 Platoon’s sector, killed some Germans with his Tommy gun, and frightened others off by throwing stones as if they were grenades.
In the last counter attack on 27 March, Ngarimu was seen waving his men on, Tommy gun in hand, and was then shot on the crest of the hill. It was then feared that the hill would be lost, but the Battalion Carriers were brought forward to cover the area, and the Germans withdrew. The Maori had secured the lower crest of POINT 209, which had been called Hikurangi, the area of New Zealand from which most of the members of 28 (Maori) Battalion came from.
At dawn on 27 March, the artillery opened fire on POINT 209, and undercover of a smoke screen ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies changed places, and by 1200 the Germans had surrendered and the battle for POINT 209 was over. The 1 Armoured Division almost reached El Hamma but was held up by a screen of anti-tank guns.
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