Chapter 7: The Medenine Incident
Early Days in Tripoli
THE New Zealand Division was in and around Tripoli for over a month, engaged in a variety of duties, and enjoying a reasonable amount of sport and recreation. Dock labour, control of civilians, guard duties, training, reorganisation and absorption of reinforcements, maintenance, Churchill ‘s visit, and for the officers discussions of the past and planning for the future – all these figured during the period. Many corps, such as the engineers,1 the anti-aircraft artillery, and the ASC were busy with their normal operational duties.
Administrative Group 2, the last of the divisional groups in the advance, did not catch up until 25 January. On that date Divisional Headquarters was assembled near Suani Ben Adem with Divisional Artillery and the Reserve Group, 5 Infantry Brigade Group was in Tripoli, and 6 Infantry Brigade Group in the Bianchi area. Fifth Brigade stayed in Tripoli only three days, however, being relieved on the 26th by a brigade from 51 (H) Division and moving to an area near Castel Benito.
The Division was on three hours’ notice for operational employment until 27 January. This was extended to twenty-four hours; but there were indications that in any case the Division would be in its present area until the end of February. Units retained petrol for 100 miles, but for some days there was a shortage which enforced economy. Supplies of petrol, and indeed of everything, depended on the opening up of Tripoli port.
The work of the Navy in clearing the port and making it usable again was a notable factor in maintaining Eighth Army’s offensive. To the untutored eye, the devastation in the harbour and the obstructions in the entrance seemed to indicate that the port would be unusable for months. But the first vessel entered the harbour on 3 February, followed by a whole convoy a few days later, and shortly thereafter over 2000 tons a day were being handled. As a
temporary measure before 3 February, vessels were unloaded by lighter outside the harbour.2
On 26 January the GOC held a conference of formation commanders and heads of services, and led discussions on past operations, on future operations, and on activities in the month ahead. For the immediate future he prescribed a general ‘sprucing up’, to include weapon training and marching. Leave to Tripoli, games, a sports meeting, and concert parties would provide the necessary element of entertainment.
Leave to Tripoli began on 29 January, a tenth of unit strength going there every day, but the men were disappointed with the city, which could offer no food or normal entertainment. There were strict orders not to buy food from inhabitants, and the general impression was that one visit was enough, despite the fact that it was a real town with an attractive seafront esplanade. Some trouble was caused by over-indulgence in the local wine, soon known as ‘plonk’, which was plentiful and cheap. It was a not unusual sight to see odd unit vehicles scouring the countryside on ‘plonk missions’, or in other words looking for fresh supplies of the local substitute for beer.
Churchill ‘s words about coming into green and fertile lands had good foundation, for the plain of Tripoli was indeed fertile compared with the desert country which was all the Division had seen for many long months. There was ample artesian water to irrigate the innumerable small farms which were the visible sign of the Fascist attempt to colonise Tripolitania; and the results of hard work were seen in fields of maize and other crops, olive and almond groves, and avenues of trees, all a truly pleasing sight, especially when the almonds came into early blossom.
By the beginning of February the whole Division was concentrated in the Suani Ben Adem – Castel Benito area. Brigade groups and the Reserve Group were broken up, and all units reverted to their own corps’ command. The Greys remained with the Division, but the attached artillery went back to its regiments.
Demonstrations and Discussions
Eighth Army made use of the lull and of the minor concentration in the area by holding a series of demonstrations and discussions on the technique of modern battle. Syndicates from the three divisions forming 30 Corps were to demonstrate the solution of problems in which they were experienced: 7 Armoured Division, in a ‘telephone
battle’, showed how an armoured division attacked; 51 (H) Division how to make a night attack through minefields, and 2 NZ Division how to move and deploy in the desert.
General Montgomery was present on 8 and 9 February, when the demonstrations were first given to an audience of formation and unit commanders from the Corps. The New Zealand Division syndicate spoke first. The GSO I (Colonel Queree) described the ground, the forces, and the plan; the GOC described the organisation and characteristics of a mobile division, and examined the three stages of planning, approach march and deployment. The CRA (Brigadier C. E. Weir) then explained the drill for putting out a ‘gun line’ when the whole Division was deployed, and the commander of 6 Brigade (Brigadier Gentry) spoke about desert formations. No comment was made on this demonstration, perhaps on account of its convincing nature, but probably because General Freyberg had such an awe-inspiring reputation.
Montgomery spoke to all officers and some senior NCOs stationed in and around Tripoli who gathered in a local theatre. He began by saying, ‘You may cough for one minute, then there will be no more coughing’ – but he did pause each fifteen minutes to let his audience relax and cough. In his address he outlined the position on the Russian and North African fronts, and gave an indication of future events, when Eighth Army would combine its operations with the Allied troops in Tunisia.
About a week later a ‘repeat performance’ of the demonstrations was attended by brigadiers and above from local troops, and by many distinguished visitors from farther afield, including Generals Alexander, Paget and Dempsey of the British Army, and Generals Patton and Bedell Smith of the United States Army. This second series coincided with the Casablanca Conference between President Roosevelt, Mr Churchill, and the Allied Chiefs of Staff, at which decisions were taken affecting the future fighting in North Africa, among them the appointment of General Alexander to command an Army Group made up of First and Eighth Armies.3
At the demonstrations General Montgomery and Air Marshal Coningham reviewed recent campaigns and future operations; and the three divisional demonstrations were repeated, without any comment from the visitors. It was after this exercise that General Patton made his famous remark which has been variously reported, but which implied that it had taught him nothing, at least about methods of command.4
On 10 February 2 NZ Division took over from 51 (H) Division guard duties in Tripoli, provision of working parties in the dock area, and part of the anti-aircraft defences. For this purpose 6 Infantry Brigade moved into Tripoli, Brigade Headquarters being in the Governor’s Palace. Infantry units found guards for power stations, wine factories, hospitals, breweries, petrol depots, water points, flour mills and so on. Brigade Headquarters co-ordinated demands for dock working parties, 900 men being drawn from the brigade itself, 1200 from a composite artillery regiment stationed in the town, and up to 1150 a day from other divisional units (5 Brigade, Divisional Cavalry, and 27 (MG) Battalion). Shifts were worked day and night both on the ships and on shore.
The work on the docks was well done, and received praise from higher authority and even from Mr Churchill himself, who on one occasion sent a laudatory telegram. It transpired that the discharge figures were signalled to him daily, and a figure of 2700 tons on 14 February had inspired the telegram. For the moment, tons of stores were more important than ground gained.
However, there was a reverse to the medal, for there was too much pilfering; and on one occasion there was an explosion on an ammunition barge being unloaded by the Maoris, the suspected cause being smoking by some of the men, although this was strictly against orders. At least-one man was killed and several wounded. This last episode led to a stiff interview between General Montgomery and Brigadier Kippenberger, who was temporarily in charge of the Division in General Freyberg ‘s absence. The Army Commander hauled the Brigadier over the coals for the Division’s delinquency, and although he stoutly defended the Division, Kippenberger was conscious that he was on shaky ground.5
There was then a general tightening up of discipline among the working parties, both by stricter control by Divisional Provost Company to prevent pilfering, and by a closer supervision by officers in charge of parties. The CO 28 (Maori) Battalion went so far as to stop leave for the unit for some days until he could be convinced that general behaviour had improved. Progressively from 17 to 28 February demands for labour from the Division were reduced, and the work was taken over by pioneer and labour units. The Composite Regiment returned to its units on 25 February and 6 Infantry Brigade to its bivouac area at Suani Ben Adem on the 28th.
Meanwhile 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment had been frequently in action along the waterfront, and had fired 30,000 rounds as part of the anti-aircraft barrage over the area. There were enemy raids almost daily, but the damage caused was negligible, and the New Zealand units had no casualties.
During the time at Tripoli the weather was wintry. There was a lot of rain, and one or two washouts, both actual and figurative. A normally dry wadi in 28 Battalion area, for example, became a fast-flowing stream and washed away several tents; and four troops of carriers from Divisional Cavalry, sent to picket an area to be used by the RAF for a bombing exercise, after getting thoroughly wet, found that the exercise had been postponed. On the other hand there were some days of bright sunshine, one of them the day of Churchill ‘s visit.
The provision of working parties for the docks, and other duties, interfered as always with any coherent training programme. There were a number of exercises on particular subjects, such as radio-telephony and how to deal with mines, and some ‘spit and polish’, mostly in the shape of formal guards on headquarters offices. However, it must be admitted that the Eighth Army, so formidable and efficient in war, had become rather like a collection of pirates, gipsies and partisans in appearance and sometimes in conduct.
Work interfered also with the elaborate plans for a divisional athletic championship. But the divisional rugby tournament, commenced at Bardia and continued at Nofilia, was at last finished on 14 February, when 28 (Maori) Battalion beat Divisional Signals by 8 points to 6.
The first reinforcements from New Zealand for over a year joined the Division at Tripoli, the previous draft – the 7th Reinforcements – having arrived in October 1941. Most of the 8th Reinforcements had been under arms in New Zealand for over a year and the well-trained 100 officers and 3000 other ranks helped to give new life to the Division. Because of the long distance from Maadi Camp, an Advanced Base was opened at Suani Ben Adem, to hold reinforcements nearer the Division for as long as the campaign continued in North Africa.
Reinforcement was especially welcome to the engineers, whose casualties over the months had been much higher than the official estimate of ‘likely wastage’. It will have been apparent already that this was due to exceptionally hard work in overcoming the enemy’s prodigal use of mines and demolitions.
The Kiwi Concert Party arrived in Tripoli on 8 February and gave many performances in the town from 11 February onwards.
On 25 February the Royal Scots Greys ceased to be under command, but before leaving handed over some of their Stuart tanks to Divisional Cavalry. They had served the Division well and had done much to improve co-operation between infantry and armour. On the same day 7 NZ Anti-Tank Regiment received the last of its 17-pounder anti-tank guns (known as ‘pheasants’), a completely new weapon. The regiment then had sixteen pheasants and forty-eight six-pounders. Courses were held to train crews for the new weapons, which had high muzzle velocity and great hitting power; it was hoped that they would prove as effective as the German 88-millimetre.
Eighth Army changed from Zone B to Zone A time at midnight on 22–23 February when clocks were retarded one hour. Zone B time (two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time) was that applicable to Egypt. Eighth Army had gone farther and farther west using this time, until an artificial state of affairs had arisen, and was in effect using a ‘daylight saving’ of one hour. The adjustment was to the time used at the western end of the Mediterranean and coincided with that used by First Army.
The Casablanca Conference
In Tunisia in the meantime the reorganisation of the front continued, combined with a gradual build-up of Allied forces. In particular 2 United States Corps attained its full strength of four divisions, one of which was armoured. The Americans, who were on the southern end of the front, gradually took up positions on a line, albeit a thin one, from Fondouk through Faid to Gafsa. Next to the north was the French 19 Corps, holding from Fondouk to Pont du Fahs, and then the British 5 Corps disposed through Medjez el Bab and thence to the north-west. The Allied line was progressively weaker as it passed from north to south, and the American sector resembled a long arm stretched out towards Eighth Army. The latter by mid-February was in touch with the enemy forces on the Tunisian frontier.
At the Casablanca Conference in Morocco on 14 February it was decided that Eighth Army should come under Eisenhower’s command when it entered Tunisia, although it would continue to be supplied from Egypt, that an Army Group Headquarters should be formed to control both First and Eighth Armies and to be known as Eighteenth Army Group, and that General Alexander (then Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces) should be appointed to command this Group under the direction of General Eisenhower, and at the same time should be appointed Deputy Commander-in-Chief to the whole Allied Expeditionary Force. General Alexander
then assembled a small tactical staff and arrived in Algiers on 15 February to take command. The directive issued to him by General Eisenhower on 17 February gave as his mission the early destruction of all Axis forces in Tunisia.
It was at this conference that the air forces were reorganised,6 the old Western Desert Air Force becoming the group of the Tactical Air Force primarily intended for continued co-operation with Eighth Army.
The period about the middle of February 1943 was thus one of a major recasting of organisation and plans in the Allied forces. At this time the two wings of Eighteenth Army Group were still separated by at least 150 miles.
The Enemy Attempt at Disruption
From the time that they were faced with fighting on two fronts, the Axis commanders – Rommel of the German-Italian Panzer Army, and von Arnim of 5 Panzer Army, the title of the Axis forces in Tunisia – had been apprehensive about an Allied thrust towards Gabes or Sfax from the west, for if successful, this would cut the Axis forces in two. The presence of Allied forces at Gafsa and Faid, even if weak in numbers, was a persistent threat. Rommel had not objected, in early January, when one of his star divisions ( 21 Panzer Division) was sent to Sfax. It is thus not surprising that after the fall of Tripoli the Axis commanders thought that the time had come to deal with this particular danger, for they were now concentrating in a central position and could take advantage of being on interior lines.
As a result of the flare-up over the withdrawal from the Homs - Tarhuna position, Rommel was in bad odour with his Italian superiors; so it was not surprising when on 26 January he was told that because of his bad health he would be released from command as soon as his forces reached the Mareth Line, and was to be succeeded by the Italian general, Messe. He had no illusions himself about the real reason, and in the first rush of anger asked that Messe should come over as soon as possible, for in his own words, ‘I had little desire to go on any longer playing the scapegoat for a pack of incompetents’.7
However, this feeling did not affect his conduct of the immediate operations, and from 23 January the German-Italian Panzer Army continued to withdraw in good order to the Mareth Line. By the middle of February all the Italian forces were in the line, but
the German forces remained mobile. Messe arrived on 2 February; but then Rommel showed no haste to go off ‘on leave’, waited for a direct order to hand over, and left the unfortunate Messe hanging about with no definite job. Rommel now had a new interest and wanted to see it through, for the Axis appreciation was that it would take Montgomery some time to reorganise and replenish the British forces at Tripoli, so that for once time, however short, was on the enemy’s side.
A side issue of this period is the disappearance of Marshal Bastico, who resigned his appointment as Governor of Libya at the end of January. Strangely enough, Rommel speaks of him in a kindly manner in retrospect, and gives him credit for much helpfulness. In his final report Bastico was very critical of Rommel, who in his opinion had lost his nerve after the Battle of Alamein, and thought only of retreat back to the Gabes Gap. Possibly some of Bastico’s bitterness springs from Rommel’s failure to give the importance to Libya which Bastico naturally thought it deserved. On the other hand, Bastico’s failure to realise the strategic necessity of a withdrawal to Gabes Gap, as the Axis called the Akarit position, is fairly typical of the military myopia of Rommel’s Italian superiors.
At this time – early February 1943 – the control of the two Axis armies was being exercised direct by Comando Supremo in Rome. There was no other official form of co-ordination. The higher direction of the Axis campaign in North Africa is a major subject in itself, a fascinating study of conflicts of ambition, national pride and incapacity, and of failure to find a satisfactory solution. Hitler ‘s view that he was the Supreme Leader of the Axis opposed Mussolini ‘s view that he was an equal partner: the Germans’ contempt for their ally, sometimes thinly-veiled and leading to a dislike of having to acknowledge any form of Italian command: the exact position of Kesselring, who was sometimes only a Senior Supply Officer, and then was in and out as commander of all German troops in the Mediterranean, sometimes with tactical control and sometimes not: geographical factors which made German troops dependent on Italian rail and sea facilities: the fact that most of the fighting took place on what was technically Italian soil, but where the effective striking force was German – all these led to a situation where often it could be said that no one knew who was commanding what. It was thus inevitable that there should be great confusion, never more noticeable than now when there were two armies in North Africa. All the German post-mortems on the campaign name the ‘command muddle’ as one of the main causes of their defeat.
However, in February the situation was that Hitler had conceded that control of operations in Tunisia would be an Italian responsibility, although Field Marshal Kesselring, as German Commander-in-Chief, South, was inserted between the Italian Comando Supremo and the two German army commanders, Rommel and von Arnim. By representations to Comando Supremo, and by constant personal visits from Rome to the respective battle headquarters in Tunisia, Kesselring was able to ensure that German tactical demands were met. Vital orders had still to be issued by Comando Supremo, and this made Kesselring’s task as much that of ambassador-at-large as Commander-in-Chief, South, for both von Arnim and Rommel made direct overtures to Comando Supremo, and neither of them willingly subordinated the interest of his own particular project to that of the other.
The immediate Axis intention in Tunisia was that the Eastern Dorsal, the range covering the coastal plain, should be secured, and to this end von Arnim planned to drive the Allies from the wedge they held in the Sidi bou Zid area. Rommel’s intention was to drive 2 US Corps from Gafsa, and this operation would not get fully under way until von Arnim’s thrust had achieved sufficient success to enable him to release some ninety tanks from 21 Panzer Division. Initially, von Arnim would have under command both 21 and 10 Panzer Divisions, with just over 200 tanks, as well as the new heavy tank battalion with a dozen Mark VI Tigers, while Rommel would start his Gafsa operation with 70 tanks, 53 from 15 Panzer Division and the rest Italian. These decisions were made on 9 February, and the operations began soon afterwards. Greater success than anticipated persuaded Rommel that if only he could get command of the three panzer divisions he could burst through to Tebessa, with Bône, and the consequent withdrawal of First Army and 2 US Corps to Algeria, his ultimate objective.
Consultations between Kesselring, von Arnim and Rommel, together with Rommel’s direct approach to Comando Supremo, resulted in a formal directive which Rommel interpreted as giving him Le Kef as his initial objective, the capture of which would involve most of his force and thus prevent his attempt at a wide outflanking drive from Tebessa to Bône. Moreover, von Arnim was given complementary tasks in the north, and although both 10 and 21 Panzer Divisions had been transferred to Rommel’s command, only part of 10 Panzer was released and Rommel did not exert his authority to secure the remainder. Splitting his force, Rommel attacked towards Sbiba and Kasserine on 19 February. Successful only at Kasserine, Rommel again split his force and thrust simultaneously towards Tebessa and Thala. By 22 February
he decided that success had eluded him, and ordered withdrawal. His action, however, together with von Arnim’s continued aggression in the north, postponed effective co-operation between First Army and 2 US Corps on one hand, and Eighth Army on the other.8
On 23 February, Comando Supremo announced plans that had been long maturing. Just as the Allies had instituted unified command for the land forces by the establishment of Eighteenth Army Group, so the Axis grouped all their forces into Army Group Africa, which included 5 Panzer Army and the German-Italian Panzer Army, or First Italian Army as it had been designated during Rommel’s absence at Kasserine. Although it had been planned that von Arnim was to command Army Group Africa, Rommel was persuaded to accept command on the basis that he would relinquish it to von Arnim at a time of his own choosing. In the meantime von Arnim would command 5 Panzer Army and Messe 1 Italian Army, while Rommel retained under his direct command the three panzer divisions. The immediate task for Army Group Africa was the disruption of Eighth Army’s concentration before the Mareth Line, and the panzer divisions were reserved for this purpose. Fifth Panzer Army would carry on with offensive operations in the north aimed to delay for as long as possible any effective co-operation between the two Allied armies.
Alexander took over command of Eighteenth Army Group just after Rommel’s attack started, and was barely in the saddle when he was called on to restore a battlefront that had almost been shivered to pieces. Part of his defensive measures in the broadest sense called for action by Eighth Army, and on 21 February he ordered Montgomery to create a threat as powerful as possible against the enemy’s southern army. But only two days later he was able to tell Montgomery that the crisis had passed and that he was not to prejudice his future plans, even though he was to keep up pressure. That ‘future’ included the strong possibility of an enemy attack before very long.
It will be remembered that 7 Armoured Division had followed the retreating enemy after the capture of Tripoli. Its advance was slow, owing to the thoroughness with which the coastal road had been mined and destroyed, and also to heavy rains which turned the salt flats near the coast into impassable obstacles. However Ben Gardane, the first village in Tunisia, was occupied on 15
February, and Medenine on 18 February, on which date 4 Light Armoured Brigade reached Foum Tatahouine, 30 miles to the south.
Medenine was important, first as a junction of many roads and tracks, secondly because it was a good assembly position for an attack against the Mareth Line, and thirdly because of a number of airfields in the area.
At this stage 2 NZ Division became aware of a force then known as the ‘Fighting French Column’, under its commander, General Leclerc. It had been formed in French Equatorial Africa, and was a mixed force – infantry, artillery and armoured cars, machine guns, oddments of transport and even a small air force. In late December 1942 it advanced north, captured all the Italian posts in southern Libya, and made contact with Eighth Army just after the capture of Tripoli. There Leclerc willingly agreed to serve under Montgomery, and his force was replenished as liberally as could be done. About the middle of February it reached Nalut, on the Tunisian frontier some 80 miles south of Ben Gardane. Its travels are not without interest, for the force served later under Freyberg ‘s command.
In the first half of February 51 (Highland) Division was moving forward at measured speed, its leading brigade reaching Ben Gardane on 19 February. When Montgomery received Alexander’s order of 21 February to intensify pressure, he was compelled to push 51 Division faster than he had intended. By 25 February the whole division was west of Medenine, and both 7 Armoured and 51 (H) Divisions were pressing against enemy defences east of the Mareth Line proper. For once, however, Montgomery was ‘off balance’, with not enough troops in the forward area, no developed defences, and no reserves between them and Tripoli 170 miles away – no ‘back-stop’ should the enemy attack and penetrate the forward line. He moved Leclerc’s force forward to Ksar Rhilane (50 miles south-west of Medenine) as an additional threat to the enemy – a bold move – and took immediate steps to send forward additional forces from Tripoli, including armoured formations and 2 NZ Division. He has since recorded9 that from 28 February until 4 March he suffered his second period of great anxiety during this long advance, the first having been during the advance from Buerat to Tripoli.
By early March all enemy forces had fallen back into or behind the Mareth Line, which ran roughly from Zarat on the coast through Mareth to Toujane, where it swung to the north-west.
In the Background – Operation PUGILIST
The title of this chapter, ‘The Medenine Incident’, is not intended to minimise the engagement of 6 March, still to be described. The reason is that Montgomery himself, in spite of anxiety for a few days, looked on the Battle of Medenine as an incident occurring during his preparations for the much greater battle for the Mareth Line. That this is so is borne out by his general plan for the next offensive, which was issued on 26 February, well before the existing crisis had been resolved. It is of sufficient importance to be quoted in full.
Most Secret 26 Feb 1943.
Operation PUGILIST General Plan of Eighth Army
The object of operation PUGILIST is to destroy the enemy now opposing Eighth Army in the Mareth position, and to advance and capture Sfax.
2. Eighth Army has made very good progress during the last week, and this has definitely helped in forcing the Germans to withdraw from the Kasserine Pass and to break off the fight in that area.
3. Our advance, and the pressure that we have been exerting against the Mareth position, now constitutes a definite threat to the enemy. As he has broken off the fight in Central Tunisia it is quite possible that he will transfer troops quickly to the Mareth front, in order to strengthen that front. He might even consider the possibility of an offensive himself against us, in order to inflict casualties and force us to postpone our own attack – which he must realise is bound to come sooner or later.
From our point of view such an offensive by him in the near future would be exactly what we would like; it would give us a great opportunity to take heavy toll of the enemy as a first step, and then to put in our own heavy attack when he was disorganised as a result of his abortive offensive.
4. The immediate policy in 30 Corps will therefore be as follows:
(a) To hold on to the positions already gained, and on the left flank to improve these positions in the mountains about Halluf in conjunction with LeClerc’s force.
(b) To organise the Corps area for defence, so that any attack by the enemy to interfere with our own preparations for ‘PUGILIST’ will have no possible chance of success.
(c) By patrol and other activity, from firm bases, to press on with preparations for ‘PUGILIST’.
5. It will be seen, therefore, that the underlying principles of our action for the next two weeks, as outlined above, are to make quite certain that the enemy gains no success from any offensive he may contemplate; meanwhile we ourselves will quietly get ready for ‘PUGILIST’.
An essential feature of our own policy must be to gain and keep complete ascendancy over the enemy air forces; for this, the selection and preparation of suitable forward air fields is of great importance.
Grouping for ‘PUGILIST’
6. 30 Corps 50 Div
4 Ind Div
201 Gds Bde
23 Armd Bde
NZ Corps 2 NZ Div
8 Armd Bde
One Med Regt
10 Corps 1 Armd Div
7 Armd Div (incl 4 Light Armd Bde, less KDG)
FF Flying Column
Operations 30 Corps
7. Before the date for the main attack, 30 Corps will carry out such preliminary operations as are necessary to ensure that the main attack will be immediately effective and will cause immediate enemy reactions.
The provisions of paras 4 and 5 to be remembered all the time.
8. The main attack of 30 Corps will be delivered on night 20/21 March against the enemy left or eastern flank.
Object: To break into the Mareth position, to roll it up from the east and north, to destroy the enemy holding troops and prevent their escape, and subsequently to advance and capture Gabes.
Operations NZ Corps
9. The task of NZ Corps will be to make a turning movement round the enemy western flank, moving via Nalut and Ksar Rhilane.
The Corps will then advance northwards, will break through any enemy troops or switch lines, and will endeavour to establish itself astride the road Gabes - Matmata so as to cut off the enemy and prevent his escape.
10. The movement of NZ Corps will be so timed that by night 20/21 March it has begun to create a serious threat against the road Gabes – Matmata.
Operations 10 Corps
11. 10 Corps will be in Army reserve. 7 Armd Div will pass to command 10 Corps in situ at a date and time to be notified later. This date will probably be about 15 Mar.
12. 10 Corps will ensure adequate protection for the left flank and rear of 30 Corps during the period immediately preceding the launching of 30 Corps attack, and during the attack itself.
13. 10 Corps will then be held ready to exploit success, being prepared to operate towards Gabes and Sfax.
14. The final objective for operation ‘PUGILIST’ is Sfax. Once operations have begun on night 20/21 March they will be conducted relentlessly until Sfax has been reached.
Administration to be arranged accordingly.
15. Once Sfax is secured, the Eighth Army will operate north-westwards against the rear of enemy forces in front of the Allied divisions in southern Tunisia, and will ‘drive’ on to Sousse.
Royal Air Force
16. Operation ‘PUGILIST’ will be supported by the full weight of the Allied Air Forces now supporting Eighth Army, and by the air striking forces in Central Tunisia and in Malta.
17. An essential feature in the preparatory stages will be the selection and preparation of forward air fields for fighters and light bombers, so that we can dominate the enemy air force and give adequate cover to our own troops while the battle is being built up.
18. Details of the air action will be notified later.
19. Tac Army will be with Main 30 Corps
Tac 10 Corps to be established near Tac Army.
20. Each Divisional Commander will be given one copy of this memorandum.
(Sgd) B. L. MontgomeryGeneral, G.O.C.-in-C. Eighth Army.
This plan requires few comments. The tenor of paragraphs 4 and 5 shows that the enemy’s moves were not to be allowed to upset long-term planning, and that the Army Commander was determined to keep the initiative in the broader field. This intention to adhere to the plan already prepared was later translated into rejecting the immediate advantage of a decided victory over 1 Italian Army.
On the date this plan was issued many of the formations named in paragraph 6 were still back near El Agheila – Headquarters 10 Corps, 50 Division, 4 Indian Division, 201 Guards Brigade and 1 Armoured Division. The Free French Flying Column, which came into existence before the Battle of El Alamein, was composed partly of Foreign Legion and partly of Moroccans, and comprised sub-units of armoured cars, a tank company (Crusaders), some anti-tank guns and some lorried infantry. It should not be confused with Leclerc’s force.
It must be emphasised that planning for the next stage, the attack on the Mareth Line, and many preliminary moves and much administrative detail were taking place concurrently with the defensive preparations at Medenine.
2 NZ Division Moves to Medenine
Late on 28 February General Freyberg was warned that 2 NZ Division would move immediately to Medenine, to come under command of 30 Corps. He was himself to fly to Medenine to see both General Montgomery and Lieutenant-General Leese. Before leaving, Freyberg left instructions that 5 Brigade was to be prepared to move at once, so that delays on the single, narrow road between Tripoli and Medenine would not prevent the immediate deployment of a complete brigade group. The rest of the Division was to follow as soon as the necessary arrangements were made.
Accordingly, while Freyberg was away, 5 Brigade Group was informed early on 1 March that it would receive replenishment priority and, accompanied by its ancillary arms, would move with its second-line transport and additional ammunition, petrol and rations to Medenine. The 5 Brigade orders group left Suani Ben Adem at midday, reaching Headquarters 30 Corps six hours later. Here Brigadier Kippenberger was given details of the area which the brigade was to occupy. Meanwhile the brigade group assembled, and by midnight was ready to move. However, the remainder of the Division had by this time so advanced preparations for the move that when General Freyberg returned he put Main Headquarters NZ Division, Survey Troop of 36 Survey Battery, 4 Field Regiment, Headquarters Divisional Artillery, Engineers and Signals on the road first. This group left Suani Ben Adem at 9.30 p.m., 1 March, and the 5 Brigade Group left an hour later. The rest of the Division was not far behind, 6 Brigade being on the road at 10.15 a.m., 2 March, and the last group, which included Divisional Cavalry, that same afternoon. The GOC and the CRE, Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson, went by air early on 2 March, followed in another aircraft by the CRA, Brigadier Weir, and the GSO I, Colonel Queree.
The move of the Division demonstrated once more the flexibility of the components of Eighth Army. On the first day of March, with the exception of 5 Brigade which had been warned of the move before dawn, all formations of the Division were occupied by the diverse activities of a non-operational period. The Divisional Artillery moved that morning to the south of Azizia to begin a three-day course of tactical and gunnery exercises, 6 Brigade was holding a football tournament, Divisional Cavalry was testing and adjusting the 37-millimetre guns which had arrived for the Stuart tanks. If any thought was given to future operations it would have been in terms of Montgomery’s outline plan for PUGILIST, in which 2 NZ Division was scheduled to advance into the Dahar by way of Nalut. Yet within two days the vast quantity of supplies necessary to move the Division and to maintain it in
battle for six days had been drawn and distributed, bivouac areas had been evacuated, vehicles had been prepared, and all units had left the area. Within one more day the Division was ready for battle nearly 200 miles away.
The road was narrow, not built for heavy traffic, and was frequently blocked by tank transporters, some of which had to be off-loaded to cross bridges south of Ben Gardane. All groups took rather more than fifteen hours to cover the distance, the complete move being made with very little incident. At Medenine, 30 Corps had issued an operational order on 28 February, defining the divisional areas that were to be occupied for the defensive battle that was expected on, or soon after, 3 March. General Freyberg had seen the area assigned to 2 NZ Division on 1 March, and that same evening the 5 Brigade orders group arrived at HQ 30 Corps to be given details of the brigade sector. In this way all commanders down to battalion level had a fair understanding of the task, and the areas to be occupied, before the units arrived.
5 Infantry Brigade Group and 4 Light Armoured Brigade in Position
In the 30 Corps area 51 (H) Division was already in position north of the Medenine – Mareth road with its left flank at Kef Ahmed ben Abdullah, and its line running thence to the northeast; and 7 Armoured Division occupied from Kef Ahmed south-eastwards parallel to the Mareth road, including the prominent feature Tadjera Kbir, the peak of which was known as Point 270. The New Zealand Division was to go into position on the left (south) of 7 Armoured Division, the northerly limit being about one mile south of the road from Metameur to Toujane, and the sector stretching south and east for some 13,000 yards, facing west and then south. The line was in an arc about four miles from Medenine. The Division was to have under command 4 Light Armoured Brigade (which now included the Free French Flying Column), and 73 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA. Fifth Brigade Group was to occupy the sector described above, with 6 Brigade in reserve and 4 Light Armoured Brigade protecting the open flank in the south.
The ground for some ten miles in advance of Medenine was a gently rising plain, broken by numerous dry wadi beds, and bounded on the west and south by a range of hills, from which the enemy would presumably debouch.
At 8.30 a.m. on 2 March the 5 Brigade orders group made contact with 1 Buffs (from 7 Armoured Division), which was occupying part of the area now to be taken over, and made a
quick reconnaissance of the area, the brigade commander deciding forward defended localities (FDLs) and inter-battalion boundaries. By midday the GOC had arrived, the position was further discussed, and final arrangements for the brigade approved. Commanding officers then made their detailed reconnaissances, and in the afternoon met the battalions as they arrived and guided them to their positions. The 21st and 23rd Battalions were deployed shortly after dark, although the final location of posts was left until daylight; 28 Battalion did not arrive until late, and moved forward into its sector early in the morning of 3 March.
Headquarters 5 Infantry Brigade was established close to the Medenine–Kreddache road about a mile and a half clear of Medenine.
The 28th (Maori) Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel C. M. Bennett) was on the right facing south of west, with its line running from the boundary with 7 Armoured Division, across the tracks from Metameur to Ksar el Hallouf and from Medenine to Ksar el Hallouf, with three companies forward and one in reserve. At a later date (4 March) 28 Battalion relieved the left company of
201 Guards Brigade, the next formation to the north, thus extending the battalion frontage to 5500 yards. One platoon of 4 Machine-Gun Company was sent to the battalion to help occupy this extension.
The 21st Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel R. W. Harding) was in the centre astride the road from Medenine to Kreddache, with two companies forward and two in reserve. It also faced south of west.
The 23rd Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel R. E. Romans) was astride the road from Medenine to Ksar Krerachefa with its left on the road to Foum Tatahouine. One company on the right faced south-west. The other three were then in the line facing south.
When 28 Battalion had taken over the additional front, the total brigade frontage was some 14,000 yards, and the troops were rather thin on the ground. But to add strength in addition to the normal allocation of one anti-tank battery from 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 5 Brigade was allotted three anti-tank batteries from 73 Regiment, RA, which were already deployed. One of these batteries was allotted to each battalion. On the morning of 4 March the new 17-pounder anti-tank guns just issued to 7 Anti-Tank Regiment arrived, and of these seven were placed in support of 5 Brigade, sited in depth across the front. This gave the brigade greater anti-tank strength than ever before. The normal artillery support coming from 5 Field Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow10) was augmented by support from 4 Field Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart11), although the latter was intended to give support also to 201 Guards Brigade.12 But in case of need even further artillery could be called upon.
All three battalions were in initial – sometimes provisional – positions by first light on 3 March and were patrolling to their fronts shortly thereafter. The situation was firm enough for General Freyberg to report to Corps Headquarters about 2 p.m. that both 5 and 6 Brigades were in position and ready for action. The 1st Buffs, which had been temporarily holding the line, then returned to 7 Armoured Division.
Behind the left of 23 Battalion was an airfield known as Hazbub. A battalion of the RAF Regiment and a light anti-aircraft regiment protected this airfield, together with some armoured cars and a battalion of French troops. There was some liaison with 5 Brigade, mainly to the extent that the ground troops were known to be available on the left flank if required; and the CRA was in touch with the anti-aircraft regiment.
Brigadier Kippenberger described the 5 Brigade position.13 He says: ‘Each battalion position had a depth of about a mile... and six-pounders [anti-tank guns] echeloned in depth. The men were dug into single rifle pits seven or eight yards apart so that each section was on a front of about sixty yards and no amount of shelling would do much harm. The greatest possible emphasis was placed on concealment – I preached that a post spotted is a post destroyed, and hardly one was visible from any distance in front. ... All weapons had orders to hold fire until decisive range. We always thought this Medenine position was our masterpiece in the art of laying out a defensive position under desert conditions.’ And that this was so is borne out by the fact that after the battle the Corps Commander sent senior officers from all formations in the Corps to look at it.
In the evening of 4 March the brigade commander issued instructions that dummy minefields were to be laid on each battalion front. If necessary 8 Armoured Brigade from 7 Armoured Division would make a counter-attack through 5 Brigade, in which case live mines would be an encumbrance.14
The 7th Field Company started marking the fields at 8 p.m. on 4 March and finished by midnight, by which time there were some 1000 yards of dummy field on the front of 28 Battalion, 1500 yards on 21 Battalion front, and 1700 yards on that of 23 Battalion. Particular attention was paid to a deep wadi on the front of 28 Battalion, and the field was so arranged as to ‘canalise’ advancing tanks to come out on to higher ground. Live mines were placed each night as blocks across the roads leading into the position, and were removed each morning.
The brigade group had made its final adjustments by daylight on 5 March. All battalions had patrols well forward, and 23 Battalion sent out a standing patrol eight miles to the south-west. The Royals of 4 Light Armoured Brigade were continuously on patrol farther out across the whole brigade front. They kept touch with Brigade Headquarters, and withdrew their armoured car screen behind the FDLs each night.
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade deployed concurrently with 5 Brigade. In addition to its armoured car regiments and supporting arms, it had under command the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, Staffordshire Yeomanry (Sherman tanks), and the Free French Flying Column. The role of the Royals has been given. Staffs Yeomanry was concentrated behind the left flank of 5 Brigade, and Divisional Cavalry was in the same area. The 2nd Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, with one squadron of King’s Dragoon Guards, and with field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery support and a field squadron of Royal Engineers, was to hold Haddada, 20 miles south-west of Medenine, and was to give warning of any wide enemy outflanking move. The FFF Column filled the gap to the north between 2 KRRC and the Royals, and was also to watch for enemy movement across the plain to Medenine.
The Remainder of the Division
Divisional Headquarters arrived at midday on 2 March and was established just east of Medenine, north of the road to Ben Gardane. The 4th Field Regiment arrived two hours later and was at once deployed. The commander of 6 Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Gentry) and the commanding officers of 6 Field Regiment and the three battalions met the GOC late in the afternoon and inspected the position the brigade was to occupy north-east of Medenine in second line. The GOC was not entirely satisfied with this position and would have preferred it to be south of the Ben Gardane road and so better placed to support 5 Brigade. Discussions went on for the next few days, the point at issue being that the GOC wanted 6 Brigade in closer support of 5 Brigade, while both the Army and the Corps Commanders wanted it placed behind the northern sector of the front as Army Intelligence forecast an enemy attack along the coast. The position in the end was a compromise, not so far north as Army wanted, nor so far south as Freyberg would have liked.
The brigade arrived in its new area at intervals between 6.30 a.m. and 3 p.m. on 3 March, and the battalions occupied positions already reconnoitred, all some two miles north-east of Medenine across the road to Bou Ghrara. The 26th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel D. J. Fountaine) was on the right (north) just east of the Bou Ghrara road, and faced north-east. The 24th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel J. Conolly) was west of the road and faced west, while 25 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel T. B. Morten15) was also west of the road south of 24 Battalion and facing west and
south. The area was thus organised for all-round defence and was supported by 6 Field Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Walter16) deployed farther back. Anti-tank guns were sited with interlocking fields of fire.
The way in which 6 Brigade’s area had been organised was, as directed by 30 Corps, to form a strongpoint should the enemy break through; but at the same time to support 5 Brigade or other parts of the line and even to counter-attack any enemy penetration. The task was thus a fluid one, with emphasis on a ‘back-stop’ role. For that role the brigade was well-prepared; but for a counter-attack role armoured support was needed. Brigadier Gentry has said since that the discussion about his possible roles were rather ‘airy-fairy’, but adds, ‘I am quite clear that our primary role was to defend our own piece of ground against attack from the flanks or rear after German penetration, and that any attack by us against that penetration would have required a properly laid-on plan with tanks and artillery support.’17
On 3 March 6 Brigade formed a small mobile force of 31 Anti-Tank Battery and 3 Machine-Gun Company, under Major Nicholson18 of 31 Battery, which was to be ready to go to either flank of 25 Battalion as required. Positions were dug in readiness. (Both these sub-units were additional to the normal allocation to the brigade.) A composite Bren-gun platoon was then formed by 8 Field Company and placed on the left flank of 25 Battalion, so committing these engineers to a fighting role if required.
The CRA had all his regiments linked up on a common communications system which even included the anti-aircraft guns on Hazbub airfield, briefed for possible anti-tank duties. Full use was made of the survey troop of 36 Survey Battery and for the first time the flash-spotting troop was deployed, setting up a base on high ground round Metameur and Point 270. The Divisional Artillery was also linked with that of 7 Armoured Division, 51 (H) Division and 5 Army Group Royal Artillery ,19 with the result that the whole front was covered by a network of interlocking zones of fire.
During 3 March the remaining units of the Division arrived in their new area, the NZASC companies carrying four days’ rations and 350 miles of petrol for the whole Division. Units were ordered to replenish daily, and to maintain their petrol supplies at 350 miles – for the shadow of PUGILIST was always in the background.
Lull before the Storm
General Freyberg held a conference of all formation and unit commanders in the afternoon of 3 March to review the position and to tie up the loose ends that were inevitable after such a fast move. He discussed the positions of 30 Corps as a whole, pointing out that all three divisions had an unusually large number of anti-tank guns and extra field artillery, and that 51 (H) Division had an armoured brigade (23 Brigade) in support. The role of 2 NZ Division was to form a solid base round Medenine, and also to operate southwards against any penetration by the enemy towards Ben Gardane. Thirtieth Corps had 300 heavy tanks (as against the enemy’s maximum of 150), and 467 six-pounder anti-tank guns. The New Zealand Division had 112 anti-tank guns, with 50 heavy tanks of Staffs Yeomanry under command and another 16 with the FFF Column. He made it clear that no attempt would be made to pursue the enemy after he had been repulsed. The timings already set down for PUGILIST would be observed.
Complete wireless silence was maintained by the Division; and to keep secret that New Zealanders were in the area a set manned by British operators from 4 Light Armoured Brigade worked from Divisional Headquarters, the difference in accent between British and New Zealand voices being enough for the purpose.20 Similarly a British operator was lent to work the RAF tentacle set.
As usual, landing grounds were of particular importance. In the area round 2 NZ Division there were three, one of them west of Medenine and now in the front line. Another was at Hazbub and the third ten miles to the south. Precautions were taken to ensure that no transport drove over these grounds except in cases of operational necessity. New Zealand engineers and working parties from 5 Brigade spent about two days improving the Hazbub ground, which it was intended to use. Nine enemy aircraft raided this ground on the evening of 4 March, but no damage was done, and the RAF destroyed three aircraft.
On 3 March there was still uncertainty about the enemy’s intentions. In the evening parties of enemy infantry attacked the carrier screen of 51 (H) Division, but were quickly driven off. It is possible that this somewhat limp attack was a form of reconnaissance for an advance down the coast, in which case it cannot have given the enemy much information. There was a little air activity but all in all the enemy was very quiet, and carrier patrols operating some miles in front of the FDLs on 4 March had nothing to report.
Tactical air reconnaissance on 4 March disclosed much movement of tanks between Matmata and Kreddache, but there was no clear indication whether the enemy would attack in the north or the south; but the point had now been reached when it did not much matter, for our defensive line was ready.
The morning of 5 March was still quiet, and the day uneventful, except for the activities of a long-range enemy gun, which spasmodically shelled the Medenine area, and particularly the Hazbub landing ground. It succeeded in denying the use of the ground to our aircraft from time to time, and its activities were most irritating. Despite flash-spotting and sound-ranging locations and air reconnaissance, the gun was never definitely located, far less dealt with, during the time 2 NZ Division was in the Medenine area, and the CRA described it laconically as ‘very troublesome’. The 4th Indian Division overran the gun position in the main Mareth attack later in the month; and it was then found that there had been a troop of two 17-centimetre guns, well out of range of the guns of Eighth Army. One of the guns was then presented to 2 NZ Divisional Artillery, and, manned by 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, was in action until the end in North Africa.
Carrier patrols from 5 Infantry Brigade went out as far as the hills on 5 March, with authority to break wireless silence if necessary; but although they saw small parties of infantry, mechanical transport and armoured cars, the enemy showed no desire to engage. He covered his real intentions with considerable skill. There was even a school of thought that his plan was not to initiate an attack, but to counter-attack from the south-west when Eighth Army attacked the Mareth Line, and it is indeed true that Rommel asked for such a plan to be prepared. However, expectations generally were for an early attack from three panzer divisions, their exact location not being known.
It was clear to everyone, from Montgomery downwards, that the brief crisis had passed. Fast movement and efficiency in establishing a strong defensive line had put Eighth Army in such a position that it would be able to resist any attack that 1 Italian Army could mount against it.
The Enemy Prepares
Meanwhile Rommel continued with his preparations. His new command, Army Group Africa, now comprised 1 Italian Army under Messe, 5 Panzer Army under von Arnim, and a mobile battle group under direct Army Group command of the three panzer divisions ( 10, 15 and 21) and a group of reconnaissance units. Rommel was running true to form in retaining personal command
of the armoured force. But he decentralised enough to ask Messe to prepare plans for his attack and he accepted a part of Messe’s plan affecting the lines of advance. His own idea had been to attack from the north from Mareth to Bou Ghrara; but he listened to Messe and other officers and changed the main line of attack to the south where the going was better for tanks. The thrust lines were then to be:
10 Panzer Division, with 40 tanks and with elements of 164 Light Division under command, from Ksar el Hallouf directed against Metameur. 3 and 33 Reconnaissance Units, plus a small force drawn from the German equivalent of an army headquarters protective unit and known as Kasta,21 all under 10 Panzer Division, were to ‘go large’ farther to the south-east.
21 Panzer Division, with 40 tanks, from Djebel Tebaga (southeast of Toujane, and not to be confused with the hill feature of the same name which 2 NZ Division came up against later in the month) – directed towards Tadjera Kbir, which was recognised as the key of the British defences.
15 Panzer Division with 62 tanks – from behind Djebel er Remtsia (east of Toujane) towards Kef Ahmed ben Abdullah.
The aim was stated to be the destruction of the enemy troops; but at the most, Rommel really hoped to disrupt Eighth Army’s assembly area and so gain more time. For limits were set to exploitation, the farthest objective being Ben Gardane; and the final stage was to be a return to the protection of the Mareth Line. The Axis Headquarters thought that the Eighth Army line was held from north to south by 51 Division, 44 Division, 2 NZ Division and 7 Armoured Division, the last-named being identified south of Medenine. It is probable that 44 Division was identified because 131 Infantry Brigade from that Division was under command of 7 Armoured Division at this time; and the presence of 4 Light Armoured Brigade south of Medenine probably accounted for the identification of 7 Armoured Division, for the brigade frequently formed part of that division.
The German codename for the operation was CAPRI.
The Enemy Attacks
All doubts about the enemy’s intentions ceased at an early hour on 6 March, when fairly heavy shelling of all forward positions began at 6 a.m. Then for the next hour and a half tanks, guns, and
transport debouched from the hills between Toujane and Kreddache, the approach having been concealed by fog in the early stages. The first tanks to be seen came down the Toujane – Medenine road and then swung north against 7 Armoured Division.
On the front of 2 NZ Division, contact with the enemy (from 164 Light Division) was first made by carriers from 21 Battalion, which engaged seven enemy vehicles carrying infantry and anti-tank guns. The carriers opened fire at close range in the fog and inflicted many casualties, but lost one carrier and had two casualties.
Small groups of infantry probed along the whole front, and farther back as the fog lifted, enemy guns could be seen taking up positions. For a long time our artillery was silent, obeying orders not to open fire prematurely, but to wait until targets came within the range of the maximum weight of guns. (This was the result of experience at Alamein.) It was definite policy, moreover, for the anti-tank guns to open at short range, and not to dispel a tank attack by using medium or field artillery at long range. The 5th Field Regiment, for instance, withheld fire until enemy tanks had run up against the forward six-pounders, and then fired on the infantry and the soft-skinned vehicles following the tanks, with the result that the tanks were isolated and received no support from the ground troops.
About 8.30 a.m. tanks were reported from two directions advancing on Point 270 (Tadjera Kbir), which seemed to be the main objective. At this time also 28 Battalion reported that ten tanks and thirty trucks were moving up the wadi on its right front. The tanks reached the boundary of the dummy minefield, and then, as had been hoped, swung towards the rising ground. Two six-pounders from 73 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, then opened fire and knocked out four Mark III Special tanks at 400 yards’ range, and mortars of 28 Battalion finished off a fifth. When the crews bailed out, the mortars and machine guns with the battalion had first-class targets and the artillery was quickly in action. The tanks were taken by surprise and lost cohesion; but then they located the anti-tank guns and opened fire on them. Despite damage to one gun of 73 Regiment and the wounding of two of the crew, the gun kept firing; and when all the other weapons had opened fire, the remaining tanks disengaged and made off in confusion. Fifteen prisoners were taken, including the tank company commander, all from 10 Panzer Division. A member of 27 (MG) Battalion who was on the spot has described the action as ‘a truly grand victory for the Tommy gunners, made still more remarkable considering that it was their very first action. The way in which they held their fire was an example to us all.’22
Shortly after 9 a.m. 21 Battalion engaged and dispersed with mortar fire a party of infantry debussing on its front, and by about 10 a.m. the remaining infantry had withdrawn and were digging in some three or four miles back. Our artillery was now active all over the front, bringing down concentrations on previously arranged zones as soon as enemy troops or vehicles entered them.
There was no serious second attack against 2 NZ Division during the morning, although there was much movement of tanks and transport across the front in a confused way; and indeed, apparent confusion was visible all along the line. But obviously the main enemy thrust was directed against Tadjera Kbir and farther north.
On the left flank, however, the enemy force ( 3 and 33 Reconnaissance Units and Kasta, the last with nine tanks) worked round to the Foum Tatahouine–Medenine road; but the Free French, who were holding this area, successfully contained this threat without any assistance. The FFF Column had some fairly hard fighting and incurred twenty-seven casualties, but throughout the day resisted enemy pressure up the line of the road from a point 12 miles south of Medenine.
During the afternoon the enemy brought his infantry into the attacks in increasing degree, and at intervals from 3.30 onwards advancing troops were dispersed by artillery fire from 2 NZ Divisional Artillery, without coming to grips with our infantry. The climax came at 5.45 p.m. when about 1000 infantry with tanks reached an area just west of Point 270, and were there subjected to a devastating concentration from 2 NZ Divisional Artillery and Corps and 5 AGRA field and medium regiments, even the heavy anti-aircraft guns on the landing ground. When the area was inspected after the battle it was found that there was rarely more than six yards between the fall of shot. The time spent in linking up the artillery along the corps front had produced a good dividend.
In the heat of the battle there arrived an addition to the Divisional Artillery, in the shape of a troop of captured 88-millimetre guns, staffed by Royal Artillery personnel under Captain Downing, RA. These had been given to the Division by Brigadier McIntyre, RA, commander of a British anti-aircraft brigade. They were deployed near Divisional Artillery Headquarters and for a short while were employed in an anti-aircraft role; but later in the day they moved to 4 Field Regiment’s area, and formed a part of that regiment until the end in North Africa. The troop was soon known as ‘Mac Troop’, officially and otherwise.23
On the front of 51 Division and 7 Armoured Division the fighting was more intense, although no serious penetration of the defences was made and Tadjera Kbir was never in danger.
At 6 p.m. twenty-seven enemy tanks and some infantry passing across 21 Battalion’s front out of range of anti-tank guns were engaged by field artillery. This was the last that the Division saw of the enemy in this action.
Throughout the day the enemy attacks had been supported by fighter-bombers and fighters; but the Desert Air Force was very active and the Luftwaffe had little success. Raids over 5 and 6 Brigades and the gun areas caused no damage or casualties, but two men were killed and two wounded in a raid over 4 Field Ambulance, and some slight damage was suffered in rear areas. One Me.109 was shot down by 26 Battalion with a captured Breda gun.
By last light it was all over and the enemy everywhere was withdrawing, having achieved no success. There was at no time the faintest requirement to call upon reserves.
The detached force of KRRC and other units at Haddada saw no action, but were left very much in the air when the FFF Column on their right was forced back by the enemy attempt to outflank them. For a while the Haddada group thought they had been cut off altogether, but they remained in position and were still there next day.
During the night of 6–7 March 30 Corps patrolled actively, mainly to discover if the enemy would resume his attacks on 7 March, despite his visible losses in tanks. By last light on 6 March it was already known that these were of the order of forty or fifty, so that a renewal of the attack was not likely.
The New Zealand Division had the special task of watching for any movement round the south of the line. Sappers after dark demolished the five tanks knocked out on 28 Battalion front, and similar action was taken elsewhere along the corps front. Some tanks of Staffs Yeomanry were moved forward slightly in case of an attempt by the enemy to penetrate 5 Brigade’s line, but it was a quiet night, except that the Divisional Artillery put down harassing fire at intervals up to 3.30 a.m.
The Enemy Withdraws
Movement of enemy vehicles, enough to presage a renewal of the attack, was heard during the night 6–7 March, but at first light only small groups of transport were seen moving off to the north and, fired on by our artillery, were quickly out of range. Dawn patrols of carriers from 5 Brigade progressively reached points
farther from the FDLs, until at 1 p.m. a patrol from 23 Battalion skirted the foothills without making any contact. The enemy force on the Foum Tatahouine road was slower to disengage, and still had troops there in the mid-afternoon.
From noon onwards on 7 March a steady stream of traffic was seen converging on the passes leading to Ksar el Hallouf and Toujane. On the main road from Medenine to Toujane vehicles were moving nose to tail, all out of artillery range. This traffic into the hills continued all day, thinning out towards evening, and although the air forces did their best to intervene, low clouds made it difficult for them. By last light 10 Panzer Division had been located near Ksar el Hallouf, and 15 Panzer Division north-east of Toujane. For the moment 21 Panzer Division was unlocated; but the enemy’s offensive was obviously over.
The enemy air force was active in covering the withdrawal but the Desert Air Force prevented serious interference over 30 Corps. However, at 10.15 a.m. 6 Infantry Brigade was bombed by nine aircraft, one man being killed and eight wounded.
Towards midday plans were made at Divisional Headquarters to form a special force known as ‘Currie Force’, after the commander of 4 Light Armoured Brigade. It consisted of one squadron of Divisional Cavalry, 4 Field Regiment less one battery, 34 Anti-Tank Battery and two squadrons of Staffs Yeomanry, and had a separate flank guard of one squadron Staffs Yeomanry, one squadron Divisional Cavalry and 26 Field Battery, all under command of Brigadier Currie. Its task was to operate southwards from Medenine for about eight miles, well clear of the FDLs, and then to work north-westwards across the front of 5 Brigade, sweeping up any enemy troops still remaining.
The flank guard soon made contact with the FFF Column, but found that the enemy had at last gone. Later 26 Battery engaged transport towing guns in the foothills near Ksar el Ababsa, but the enemy was soon out of range. At 5.30 p.m. a single 88-millimetre gun fired twenty-odd rounds at the main column but caused no damage or casualties. The force laagered for the night 7–8 March seven miles south-west of Medenine. At dawn it was again fired on by an 88-millimetre gun and had seven casualties. Later in the morning it was recalled and broken up, as there was obviously no further point in retaining it.
During 8 March Divisional Cavalry took over from the Royals the patrol line along the foothills south-east of Ksar el Hallouf, and was in contact with the enemy, taking two prisoners. The forward companies of 21 Battalion were shelled at long range in the morning, but otherwise there was little enemy shelling. The
flash-spotting troop extended its base with little result, for the hilly country gave the enemy ample shelter from observation. Had the sound-ranging troop been available it might have had better luck.
All divisions maintained patrols during the following night, as the enemy armoured divisions seemed to have halted temporarily. Bad visibility on 9 March hampered air observation, but by the end of the day all the indications were that 15 Panzer Division was resuming its role of close support to the Mareth Line, while 10 and 21 Divisions were going back to the Gabes area. Divisional Cavalry, which kept up observation along the foothills, saw some enemy movement on the escarpment and drew fire from one point. Even on 10 March it was found that all the heights were picketed and any attempt to penetrate drew fire; but enemy offensive action was confined to the everlasting long-range gun, which spasmodically shelled the Medenine area and Hazbub landing ground.
On 10 March the FFF Column left 4 Light Armoured Brigade and moved to join Leclerc’s force at Ksar Rhilane. By this time the task of 2 NZ Division had finished, although Divisional Cavalry continued to patrol along the foothills until 14 March. Fifth Infantry Brigade was relieved by British troops in the afternoon of 11 March, and next day moved to a staging area for the next operation, to which by this time all efforts were being directed. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was transferred to the command of 10 Corps at this time.
Some Thoughts on Medenine
Rommel has little to say about the Battle of Medenine, but his remarks are of some weight: ‘The attack began extraordinarily well, but soon came up against strong British positions in hilly country, protected by mines and anti-tank guns. ... Attack after attack was launched, but achieved no success. ... it soon became clear that the attack had failed and there was nothing more to be done about it. ... The attack had bogged down in the break-in stage and the action never had a chance of becoming fluid. The British commander had grouped his forces extremely well and had completed his preparations with remarkable speed. In fact the attack had been launched about a week too late. ... We had suffered tremendous losses, including forty tanks totally destroyed. But the cruellest blow was the knowledge that we had been unable to interfere with Montgomery’s preparations. A great gloom settled over us all. The Eighth Army’s attack was now imminent and we had to face it. For the Army Group to remain in Africa was now plain suicide.’24
The last few sentences show Rommel’s views, which he had already voiced several times, and was to voice again more vigorously to both Mussolini and Hitler within a few days, for this was Rommel’s last battle in North Africa. He departed on sick leave on 9 March, and knew that he would not be coming back. His two years of campaigning in North Africa did not end on a high note. Indeed, for him it ended in near disaster.
The German attack at Medenine was virtually a straightforward charge against our line, with little subtlety, with only a weak flank attack, and with practically no reconnaissance beforehand. The war diaries of all three panzer divisions show that there was little if any co-ordination by Rommel, and in fact the renewal of the attack on a general scale in the afternoon was arranged by the three divisional commanders themselves through personal and radio discussion. Having launched the attack, Rommel seems merely to have looked on and almost to have expected the worst from the outset. Like a ghost from the past, one can see Napoleon at Waterloo standing at his side.
All three divisions speak repeatedly of heavy and devastating shellfire. Tanks were blinded and there could be no hope of advance unless the British guns were neutralised. At one critical stage Headquarters 21 Panzer Division was so heavily shelled that it was out of action for half an hour. It is of some interest to read that the German sound-ranging and flash-spotting sections had no success in locating the British guns.
The 15th Panzer Division admitted a loss of twenty-four tanks and 21 Panzer Division over twenty, while 10 Panzer Division lost about seven or eight. Thirtieth Corps counted fifty-two enemy tanks destroyed, so that the figures are for once in agreement. It was one-third of the enemy’s strength in armour, a crippling loss. Enemy prisoners, however, amounted to only eighty-three.
About 6 p.m., acting on mistaken information that 10 Panzer Division had reached Metameur, Rommel planned to move 15 Panzer Division across to the right (south) during the night and resume the attack next morning; but when the error was discovered he ordered a general withdrawal.
The Allied victory had been due to anti-tank defence in depth supported by massed field and medium artillery, a conclusive answer to the armoured thrust. Only one squadron of armour was engaged, without loss. Good concealment minimised the effects of enemy fire against our artillery, so that little help was possible for the enemy armour. And good concealment also made our losses of
infantry very small. Brigadier Weir, responsible for much of the whole artillery programme, later emphasised that Eighth Army, for the first time, had good observation.
Earlier in this chapter it has been explained that Montgomery regarded the Medenine battle only as an incident, albeit an annoying one, which occurred while preparations for his next offensive were under way. He did not change those plans because of the victory. Some commanders – Rommel for example – would have jumped at the opportunity of knocking out an already reeling enemy, following up with every man, gun, tank, and aircraft to storm through the Mareth Line. Such tactics are spectacular, and sometimes successful. But it was sounder and surer to delay a little and complete preparations before striking with full strength, and this was the course Montgomery followed.
The part of 2 NZ Division in the battle was not great, for the severe fighting took place farther north where forty-seven enemy tanks were destroyed. But the Division by establishing itself so quickly in a defensive line which was a model of its kind made a worthy contribution.
Casualties in the Division from 4 to 10 March were 1 officer and 6 other ranks killed, and 2 officers and 39 other ranks wounded. Most of these were the result of air action, for effective concealment had minimised, indeed almost nullified, the enemy’s ground fire.
At Medenine the Germans used Nebelwerfers for the first time against Eighth Army. New Zealand observers both heard and saw them, but they seemed to be firing at extreme range, and there is no record of their inflicting any loss on the Division.