Chapter 9: PUGILIST – a Check
AT 6 p.m. on 19 March NZ Corps began its advance in desert formation on a nine-vehicle front, the speed prescribed being 8 m.i.h.1 with vehicles at 50 yards’ dispersion. Bright moonlight helped to overcome the difficulties of crossing the numerous wadis and sand dunes. The Corps completed its move to the next staging area, a journey of about 30 miles, not long after midnight. Vehicles were at once topped up with petrol, and Petrol Company vehicles then returned to the Field Maintenance Centre at Bir Amir. A troop from 26 Field Battery was detached to join King’s Dragoon Guards, the advanced guard for the next day. All other troops bedded down until daylight on 20 March.
BENGHAZI MINUS(the enemy was aware of the move), which had been received during the march, decided the GOC to move off immediately after breakfast and not wait until night. Wireless silence was broken shortly after 2.30 a.m. on 20 March when ‘TRIPOLI 0730’ was sent to Army Headquarters, and it was arranged that full wireless communications could open at 7 a.m. It is not clear on what grounds Montgomery sent BENGHAZI MINUS, and in fact there is a suspicion that it was just one way of asking the Corps to speed up its rate of advance.2
At 6 a.m. 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery moved off to cover the crossing of Wadi el Aredj, and at the same time Divisional Cavalry (Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant) crossed the wadi and moved to the right flank as a protective screen. KDG (Lieutenant-Colonel M. J. Lindsay) was now well in advance of the Corps, and by 12.20 p.m. had crossed the road from Bir Soltane to Ksar el Hallouf, having been lightly opposed by elements of 3 Reconnaissance Unit. The French Group pushed ahead on the right flank towards Point 298 (ten miles north of this road) with orders to keep up its advance, and in particular to watch the debouchment of the tracks from
Matmata and Tamezred. It was opposed during the day by 220 Reconnaissance Unit of 164 Light Division. The French Group, KDG and Divisional Cavalry together thus formed a long right-flank guard.
Shortly after midday the tail of the Corps crossed both Wadi el Aredj and Wadi bel Krecheb, despite some difficulties of going. The advance continued steadily, but at 4 p.m. the gun group was bombed by aircraft of the United States Army Corps. There were some casualties and one truck was destroyed. It seemed that the pilots became conscious of their mistake, as the rear flight veered off without pressing home the attack. Later an apology was received for this attack.
By last light NZ Corps was within sight of the entrance to Tebaga Gap, and forward elements were within range of the enemy positions. Indeed, work was started to survey guns in on the permanent grid, but this had to be stopped after dark. Enemy troops were seen withdrawing from the west into the Gap.
Air reconnaissance had reported great activity in the Gap, including digging on a line parallel to PLUM and seven miles north-east. But at last light there was still no sign of any transfer of troops from the Mareth Line itself; indeed there was some movement of troop-carrying vehicles from Matmata south-east to Ksar el Hallouf, which might indicate a strengthening of the line, although it was also possible that this might mean an attack against the line of communication of NZ Corps.
Enemy reports of activities during this day – 20 March – show that 3 Reconnaissance Unit was pushed away to the north-west by KDG, and in order to avoid being cut off withdrew to the southern slopes of Djebel Tebaga. Messe reports that at 5.40 p.m. the Saharan Group was ordered ‘to withdraw’, but it appears that the withdrawal was merely from in front of PLUM into the actual defences, which is confirmed by the movement seen by NZ Corps at last light. Bayerlein states that in the evening of 20 March 164 Light Division was ordered to move back to the Matmata – Tamezred area. Pistoia Division then extended to its right, taking over the line previously held by 164. The Germans were still nervous about an advance by Eighth Army from Tamezred eastwards.
But more important to the future of NZ Corps was the warning order, given in the evening of 20 March, that 21 Panzer Division, then some miles south of Gabes, would move to the support of Mannerini.
It was on this night of 20–21 March that NZ Corps was to make apparent a serious threat against the Gabes – Matmata road, and on this same night 30 Corps was to commence its offensive against the main Mareth Line. The frontal and the outflanking attacks were the two parts of one combined attack, the full results of which would only be achieved if they were simultaneous. Any hesitation of the one part, until it was seen what was happening on the other, would be certain to produce a check.
It was already apparent that the Army Commander was a little concerned about the timing of the moves of NZ Corps, and short of giving a direct order to push on faster, was trying to speed things up. Past experience had shown that the Germans were very steady and capable of fending off short-range flank pressure while their main body slipped away. A flank attack of vigour and weight was called for, and the obvious course was to attack and capture PLUM, after which no real defensive position existed between NZ Corps and either the road from Matmata to Gabes or the village of El Hamma. The loss of PLUM would clearly threaten the enemy’s line of communication, and must produce some result such as the thinning out of the Mareth Line to strengthen the flank defences.
But to comply with the Army plan, and with the original timings, the attack should go in on the night 20–21 March and the Gap be forced by early on the 21st. New Zealand Corps was at this stage about twelve hours ahead of schedule, and during the evening of 20 March General Freyberg informed Eighth Army that he intended to move on PLUM at first light on 21 March and asked that it should be bombed at 8 a.m., so losing any advantage that might have been gained.
The NZ Corps plan for 21 March was for KDG to move at first light and reconnoitre the whole enemy line, while 8 Armoured Brigade would move at 7 a.m. and endeavour to break through the eastern end of the defences. (It will be clear from the map that NZ Corps was approaching the Gap diagonally from the south-east and not square on.) Divisional Cavalry was to form a right-flank guard. This procedure conformed with the original conception of first attempting to manoeuvre the enemy from PLUM, but the pace of the advance was already lagging and the initial plan for an infantry attack mounted within three hours of being checked was in abeyance.
Divisional Cavalry began to move at 6.10 a.m. and established patrols on a six-mile radius to the north-east and south-east. At its southern point it was in touch with French patrols, which were stretched out on a wide arc as far south as the road to the Hallouf
Pass. On the other flank French forces occupied Bir Soltane during the morning without opposition. The situation was still fluid enough for the GOC to give some thought to the rear of the Corps, and 5 Brigade provided a rearguard to take post behind 1 Ammunition Company, the rear unit at the time.
King’s Dragoon Guards reconnoitred well up to the enemy line, despite running into a minefield about four miles south of the centre of the line. The 8th Armoured Brigade advanced towards the eastern end of the enemy position close to Zemlet el Madjel, the western feature of Djebel Melab, found the going very rough and rocky, but made fair progress until it was halted by a combination of mines and shellfire. Notts Yeomanry (Lieutenant-Colonel J. D. Player) on the right flank tried to find a way round the enemy’s left; but although they destroyed a gun and a few trucks they could not make any penetration. The 1st Buffs in support of Notts Yeomanry ran on to a minefield. The 3rd Royal Tanks (Lieutenant-Colonel D. A. H. Silvertop, MC) met strong enemy resistance astride the Kebili road round Point 170, and later in the day probed the enemy defences north of Point 180. Staffs Yeomanry (Lieutenant-Colonel J. A. Eadie, DSO) then came up on the left and managed to advance a little on the north of the Kebili road, but all in all a combination of mines, wire, infantry and anti-tank guns held up the advance, which was somewhat piecemeal.
PLUM was duly bombed at 8 a.m. and many fires started, but this was insufficient to allow the tanks, unsupported by infantry, to get through.3
The rest of 21 March was on the whole a day of reconnaissance, and the GOC spent the day well forward. During the morning, in company with the CRA (Brigadier Weir) and the Commander 6 Brigade (Brigadier Gentry), he was with Tactical Headquarters 8 Armoured Brigade. At first the COs of 25 and 26 Battalions accompanied their brigade commander but it soon became obvious that there would be no early attack, and they went back to their battalions.
The artillery was greatly helped by some useful and accurate trig lists which had been found in Tripoli. Both 4 Field Regiment and 211 Medium Battery were in action in the morning, and later moved up by batteries closer to the enemy positions. They were shelled at intervals, and Mac Troop had nine casualties.
Shortly before midday the GOC received a message from Montgomery saying that 30 Corps had attacked the evening before with some initial success, but that the enemy was apparently going to
stand and fight. Montgomery wanted the GOC to make for PEACH (i.e., El Hamma) forthwith, and to be prepared to occupy GRAPE (north-west of Gabes) and from there turn towards Mareth with mobile forces. The GOC replied that he had bumped into an extensive minefield, and that he intended to attack PLUM that night and would then exploit towards PEACH. But time was moving on, and the Corps was now well behind schedule.
By afternoon it had been established that the enemy defences followed the line of an old Roman wall, in front of which the feature Point 201 formed a strongly defended outpost. The wall itself was a line of crumbling rock about eighteen inches to two feet high and two to three feet wide, and was clearly visible across the Gap. Apparently, even in olden days the Romans had defended Tebaga Gap.
It was not until the middle of the afternoon that it was decided that infantry must force a way through the minefield to allow the tanks to push through. Sixth Infantry Brigade would attack, and 8 Armoured Brigade would move through the gap at first light and fan out to right and left, leading a general advance on El Hamma. When this plan was formulated it was believed that Germans had arrived in the line, but this was not correct.
General Freyberg warned Brigadier Gentry at 3 p.m. that 6 Brigade would be required to attack that night, and at 5 p.m. when at Point 180, from which Point 201 was visible, he confirmed this. He directed 6 Brigade to capture Point 201 that night with the support of all available artillery, subject however to a restriction to sixty rounds per gun, as there might be a shortage of ammunition. This was over-cautious, for the line of communication was fully operative and, in fact, fifty rounds per gun were distributed at last light to all batteries that had been in action.
Brigadier Gentry had already warned his battalion commanders to meet him at Point 180, and gave his verbal orders for the attack within a few minutes of receiving the GOC’s orders. Reports from forward troops had supported the information already available from air photographs and the artillery targets were given to the CRA, who was present throughout, from these. As ammunition expenditure was to be limited, the bombardment was confined to the enemy’s forward defences. One squadron of Sherman tanks from 3 RTR was under command of 6 Infantry Brigade.
All arrangements were made by 5.30 p.m., only about twenty minutes after the GOC had given his orders. At 6.35 p.m. the following order was issued from Brigade Headquarters:4
Confirming verbal orders. 6 Bde will attack and capture hill feature 201 tonight. Right 26 Bn left 25 Bn inter bn boundary 89 easting grid. start line east and west through 180 hill feature. zero hour 2130 hrs when inf leaves start line. arty programme zero to zero plus 21 minutes on enemy FDLs finishing with one round smoke. thence lift 300 yards for one min thence till zero plus 60 mins on trig 201 at rate one rd per min as guide to adv inf. inf rate of adv to enemy FDLs 100 yards in one and a half mins thence 100 yards in two mins. bde HQ closes present location 2000 hrs move to start line on axis. ADS moves with Bde HQ and establishes 600 yards due south of start line on axis. axis to centre of start line normal provost lights ending with two blue. start line taped. units not taking part in attack remain present area.
Sections were detached from 8 Field Company to clear minefield gaps, one to each attacking battalion, from sixteen to twenty-four yards wide, and about 250 yards from the centre line of the advance, which ran through the summit of Point 201. A provost detachment worked with each section.
At approximately 6.30 p.m. Brigadier Gentry travelled up the axis to see how arrangements for lighting and for marking the start line were progressing. Some distance before the start line the lights on the axis suddenly ended, and the axis could not be found. The liaison officers with the brigade commander were sent off to try and locate the provosts, but after half an hour he decided that zero hour would have to be delayed, and spoke in clear over the
radio to the Brigade Major (Major Dawson5) saying that the time on the message then being prepared was to be altered to 2200 hours if ‘Steve’ (the CRA) could change his timing. This postponement of half an hour was in fact carried out.
It transpired that the officer sent with the provosts to mark the axis and start line had moved too fast for the provosts, who had to place lamps, and the latter were left behind. All was well in the end, but it gave Gentry an uncomfortable few minutes.
The order quoted on the previous page is an impressive example of simplicity combined with clarity and brevity, and shows the state of training that had now been reached in 2 NZ Division. For none but first-class troops could have faced an approach march and a subsequent attack under the timings given.
The 25th and 26th Battalions moved by transport some two miles up the axis and debussed about a mile from the start line, thereafter marching on foot and reaching their positions in good time. One enemy bomber came over while the troops were in vehicles, but his bombs did no damage.
At 10 p.m. the artillery opened fire and the infantry advanced across the start line in brilliant moonlight. The 26th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel D. J. Fountaine) on the right flank had A Company on the right and D on the left, with B in support and C in reserve. The 25th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel T. B. Morten) had C Company on the right and A on the left, with D behind A, and B as reserve.
The enemy did not open fire until the twenty-one minute concentration was over, and by that time the forward companies were ahead of the enemy’s fixed lines, and the advance was not held up. At one point, however, Headquarters 26 Battalion and the reserve company were pinned to the ground by flanking fire, which led the battalion commander to send his Intelligence Officer back to Brigade Headquarters to ask for tank support. But by that time the brigade commander had estimated that the overall position was good and that nothing would be gained by sending up tanks; and in fact, after a brief delay at some wire, where several casualties were suffered, soon after midnight first D Company and then A Company reached its objective and fired the success signal, followed by B Company shortly afterwards. The battalion had gone slightly off course to the east, but this did not affect the successful outcome, which included the taking of many prisoners. From then on until daylight there was only spasmodic shelling of the battalion position.
On the left 25 Battalion had a more adventurous time. C and A Companies pressed on steadily, attacking and passing the first enemy positions, which consisted of fortified and well-dug trenches. Meanwhile D Company, after some initial delay, deployed to the left of A Company and also advanced steadily, capturing among other things a small field-gun position. B Company in reserve was pinned down by fixed-line fire, and its headquarters put out of action. C and A Companies went on towards Point 201, while D Company covered the left flank, and in so doing got amongst enemy transport and guns in an exhilarating action. Finally all three companies consolidated on the northern slopes of 201, while B Company deployed in the rear. Again the battalion had gone slightly to the east and had occupied the whole of Point 201, but this had no effect upon a clear-cut victory.
The attack had shown good planning, a determined approach, and resolute fighting, and was an outstanding success. The casualties were 11 killed and 68 wounded and missing. Thirty-two officers and 817 other ranks were captured, all Italian; and weapons captured included some hundreds of rifles, 32 MMGs, 10 anti-tank guns and 12 75-millimetre infantry guns.
About midnight, when Brigadier Gentry was certain that his attack was successful, he telephoned the GOC and urged that 8 Armoured Brigade should be moved through at once instead of delaying until first light. To this the GOC replied that it might be difficult to move the armour so unexpectedly, but that Gentry had his authority to take a message to the commander 8 Armoured Brigade asking that the tanks should move forthwith through the minefield to exploit the infantry success. No direct message was sent from Corps Headquarters to Brigadier Harvey, who was not on the telephone. Gentry entrusted the mission to the officer commanding the Machine-Gun Company under command (Captain I. S. Moore), who was at Brigade Headquarters at the time. This officer made contact with Brigadier Harvey and gave him the message, which was in the form of a request and not an order. There was some discussion between Harvey and Moore, but as the form in which the message had been sent did not appear to indicate a real urgency, and as there was the normal need for maintenance and rest, Harvey thought that it would be better to adhere to his original orders to move at first light. There is no doubt that if he had received a direct order to push on, the order that the circumstances seem to call for, he would have complied.
The 6 Brigade victory thus remained an isolated one in the midst of a lethargy in the rest of the Corps. And the final fruits of the little victory had yet to be picked. The 8th Field Company
had followed up closely and by the early hours of 22 March had filled in an anti-tank ditch and prepared lanes through the minefield. The squadron of tanks under command commenced to move up behind 25 Battalion at 2.30 a.m. They were intended primarily for anti-tank defence in case of failure to get other weapons forward, but before daylight all supporting arms were in place. In the first daylight hours the combined efforts of the various infantry weapons, supported in one case by a tank, caused much damage and led to the surrender of another 400 Italians. There was never a clearer case of moral superiority, and obviously a clean wedge had been driven through PLUM.
In the opinion of some subordinate commanders at the time, and on reviewing the facts today, there can be little doubt that an opportunity was lost, and that if 8 Armoured Brigade had passed through about 3 a.m. it could have disrupted the Italian position, and might well have been through the four miles’ length of gap by daylight. Such an attack presupposed a really offensive design within the Corps, and this was not visible at the time.
The reason for the GOC’s caution may have been that just before 6 Brigade attacked, he had received another message from the Army Commander saying that everything pointed to the likelihood of the enemy being put off balance as the NZ Corps movement developed. He suggested that NZ Corps should reach GRAPE (northwest of Gabes) as soon as possible, should then attack Gabes and
destroy all the enemy depots there, and then operate with mobile forces towards Mareth, while holding Gabes securely against any enemy withdrawal northwards. He asked for a forecast when the GOC expected to reach GRAPE.
This was in fact a modified version of the Army Commander’s SIDEWINDOWS alternative, and was a departure from the existing plan, which for 30 Corps was to capture Gabes while NZ Corps bypassed the town. The GOC’s earlier preference, expressed by his reluctance to accept Montgomery’s accelerated timetable and by his insistence that Leese inform him should the 30 Corps attack falter, that the enemy reserve should be committed at Mareth before NZ Corps drove forward from Tebaga, now appeared to reassert itself, and from this perspective it must have seemed that he was being asked to advance alone and absorb single-handed the thrust of all the mobile armour and infantry. It was a situation which presented with immediate insistence, and in a new form, the necessity of deciding whether to risk all on Montgomery’s judgment and chance a serious encounter with the bulk of 1 Italian Army, or whether to go slowly and carefully and wait until NZ Corps should not be alone in the field. The point that success on the Mareth front had always been dependent on the speed with which NZ Corps turned the flank at the Tebaga switch line seems again to have been submerged in a wave of caution. Freyberg replied that it was too early to prophesy, but that if the 6 Brigade attack was successful the Corps would operate towards PEACH (El Hamma). There was no mention of GRAPE or of the other tasks suggested to him.
The fighting on the front of NZ Corps for the next four days – 22 to 25 March inclusive – shows a similarity from day to day, inching forward in the centre and flanks, with exploratory reconnaissance on either flank. The total advance in the centre was of the order of only 1500 yards, for by the evening of 22 March, 21 Panzer Division was on the scene, and on 23 March 164 Light Division had also arrived. These troops were a different proposition from the Italians, and any chance of a speedy breakthrough had gone.
The activities of NZ Corps during daylight on 21 March – the various reconnaissances – were enough to induce the enemy to speed up the moves of 21 and 164 Divisions. About 9.30 a.m. 21 Division was ordered to move to the area just north of Zemlet el Madjel, and later in the day 164 Division was relieved by Pistoia Division and was moved back to a central position on the Gabes – Kebili road some ten miles from Gabes. The 21 st Panzer Division moved with increasing speed as the day went on, with the general idea of attacking through Point 201 along the line of the road from Gabes to Kebili. At this time 6 Brigade had not captured Point 201.
The Germans were still reporting the attacking formation as 10 Armoured Division, and had not identified NZ Corps.6
At first light 8 Armoured Brigade advanced with Staffs Yeomanry on the right, Notts Yeomanry on the left, and 3 Royal Tanks in reserve. The brigade made little progress, being much hampered by enemy artillery fire from both flanks, including fire from 88-millimetre guns. Staffs Yeomanry established a footing in the right of the enemy line about Point 247, knocked out at least one tank and took 100 prisoners, and for its pains was bombed by our own aircraft. Notts Yeomanry passed through the minefield and penetrated to the north of Point 201, but was heavily shelled and lost two tanks. During the advance of 8 Armoured Brigade, Colonel Kellett, DSO, second-in-command of the brigade, was killed, actually while talking to General Freyberg, who as usual was well to the front.
Intelligence reports the previous evening had foreshadowed the arrival of three troops of 88-millimetre guns, and now proof had come that the report was correct. Moreover, by midday ground observers reported eleven enemy tanks north-east of Point 201, and later another twenty tanks were reported a few miles farther back. Later still, air reconnaissance confirmed that this was 21 Panzer Division.
In the early afternoon there was a series of tank engagements at long range, punctuated by enemy artillery fire from the foothills of Djebel Tebaga. The RAF made several raids in support of NZ Corps during the day, and on one occasion some forty aircraft bombed a group of tanks estimated at forty and claimed hits on thirty-two, including the destruction of nine.
Divisional Cavalry also moved forward through the minefield with orders to clear enemy positions, including the enemy guns on the Djebel Tebaga slopes, that were holding up the tanks, but enemy fire, both from guns and tanks, was too strong and little progress was made. They did, however, capture one troop of 77-millimetre guns and took prisoner 11 officers and 135 other ranks, all Italians.
King’s Dragoon Guards spent most of the day in and around Zemlet el Madjel, but in the afternoon one squadron was sent to try to find a passage through Djebel Tebaga. The squadron reached the top of the range but reported that the northern face was sheer and impassable.
During the day both 4 and 6 Field Regiments, and the anti-tank batteries with 6 Brigade, moved forward, for enemy targets were getting out of range. The counter-battery work by the Corps artillery (111 Field Regiment, RA, 64 Medium Regiment, RA, and 4 and 6 Field Regiments, NZA) was effective enough to quieten the enemy guns from time to time.
A number of enemy air raids on our gun positions during the day caused no damage, but bombs did cause damage and casualties in the forward medical units. Towards the end of the day it was thought better to move 6 Brigade Advanced Dressing Station to a quieter position.
The ground occupied by 25 and 26 Battalions was kept under heavy enemy fire, and at midday it was bombed. The 25th Battalion had ten casualties from shellfire. In the early evening 6 Infantry Brigade began to ease forward and occupy the ground gained during the day by the tanks, and as part of this move 25 Battalion took over a little of the frontage of 26 Battalion east of the Kebili – El Hamma road, so allowing the latter to stretch out to the north and east. The 25th Battalion moved without incident, and deployed the reserve company on its left flank. But when B Company of 26 Battalion began to move towards high ground on the right flank, a radio message was received saying that enemy tanks and Italian troops in unknown strengths were advancing up a wadi on the other side. The company took cover at the north-west end of the feature and waited for the position to clarify, the Italians being visible about 100 yards away. Their supporting machine-gun platoon (4 Platoon of 2 MG Company), thinking that B Company had occupied the feature but having no means of wireless communication with the company commander, moved up to consolidate. The result was that the platoon, under Lieutenant Titchener,7 ran into the Italians, and while both sides were surprised, the machine-gunners recovered first and rounded up thirty-five Italians and captured intact four 75-millimetre guns and two machine-gun posts.
The enemy vehicles advancing on the feature were then engaged by 8 Armoured Brigade, and the enemy advance petered out. It appears most unlikely that these vehicles were in fact tanks; Lieutenant Titchener himself disclaims their presence, saying that they were more likely to be tracked infantry carriers.
The remainder of 26 Battalion moved forward unopposed to their new positions some 500 to 1000 yards ahead. By the end of the day the enemy was securely established on the high ground
to the north-west and the east of PLUM, and had cross-observation on all movement over the ground between Djebel Melab and Djebel Tebaga. There was every sign that he intended to stay there.
The Enemy – 22 March
Following 6 Brigade’s successful attack on the night 21–22 March, 21 Panzer Division was ordered to counter-attack. This the division did about 11 a.m., with tanks leading, but bad going and NZ Corps ‘ shellfire delayed the advance, and it was soon clear that the attack could not succeed that day. The division therefore took up a line which ran roughly north-west and south-east some 3500 yards short of (i.e., north-east of) Point 201. It was then still hoped to recapture the feature the next day.
About 10.30 a.m. 164 Light Division was ordered to move to the Tebaga front immediately; but after some further discussion it took up an intermediate position round Hir el Assouad, some miles east of PLUM and on the north-east slopes of Djebel Melab. (The enemy still feared an advance by Eighth Army through the passes east of Djebel Melab.) However, in the evening 164 Light Division was told to join 21 Panzer in the line facing the enemy, as it was now apparent to the Germans that the greater danger was on the Tebaga front. Both divisions were to be under Mannerini’s command.
That same evening there were discussions between the commanders of 21 Panzer and 164 Light Divisions, and between them and Mannerini. They concluded that another attack on Point 201 could not succeed, and that their only course was to go on the defensive.
NZ Corps – 23 March
Activities on 23 March bear close similarity to those of 22 March – a cautious edging along the flanks combined with attempts to ascertain if a wider outflanking was possible, and probing here and there at the enemy line. The GOC became increasingly concerned about the line of communication, not only to the south-east, but also to the west. Altogether the day was an unsatisfactory one.
The 8th Armoured Brigade had no particular success to record during the day after attempting to work along both flanks. The CO of 3 Royal Tanks, Lieutenant-Colonel D. A. H. Silvertop, was wounded and evacuated and the second-in-command died of wounds. Divisional Cavalry patrolled the foothills of Djebel Tebaga, took many prisoners and destroyed a number of abandoned guns.
During the night 22–23 March the enemy filtered back on to the northern slopes of ‘Titchener Hill’, and in the end the enemy fire was heavy enough to force the greater part of our troops to retire, leaving only observation parties on the top of the hill.
Both 25 and 26 Battalions were spasmodically shelled. Three enemy air raids caused no damage, but at 9.20 a.m. the RAF bombed and strafed our troops, mainly in 26 Battalion area. This was too much, and by arrangement indication marks were erected in the area – the letter ‘A’ in 26 Battalion, ‘E’ on Point 201, and ‘H’ in 25 Battalion area.
In the morning the CO 24 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly) with his company commanders reconnoitred 26 Battalion area with a view to relieving that battalion the following night, but at midday the GOC decided that 24 Battalion would probably have to go into the line on the left of 25 Battalion to extend the front, and a reconnaissance was then made of the new area.
The uncertain movements of 10 Panzer Division now became a complicating factor. After its Medenine rebuff this division had gone to an area north of Gabes, but on the renewed activity of 2 US Corps8 it had moved towards Gafsa. It was reasonable to assume that 10 Panzer was to oppose the Americans, who on 22 March entered Maknassy, which was only some 40 miles from the coast between Gabes and Sfax. The threat to the enemy’s ‘neck’ was now becoming really dangerous.
But late on 22 March Eighth Army informed NZ Corps that 10 Panzer Division was believed to be round Gabes, and that there was a chance that it would be used to support 21 Panzer Division against NZ Corps. This may have seemed a possibility to Intelligence Eighth Army, but in a personal telegram to General Freyberg, sent in the early hours of 23 March and yet to be discussed, Montgomery said inter alia, ‘10 Panzer Division engaged in Gafsa area’. This conflict of views explains why NZ Corps early on 23 March wirelessed Eighth Army, ‘Require Tactical Reconnaissance locate 10 Panzer Division and attempt follow movements’. A reply came from Eighth Army almost immediately: ‘Indications 10 Pz Div more concerned American threat but will watch with Strategical Reconnaissance today.’
However, Freyberg was still not reassured about the movements of 10 Panzer Division, and in mid-morning ordered 5 Infantry Brigade to take up defensive positions facing south and south-west on a line whose centre was some seven miles south-west from Point 201. By 6 p.m. the brigade had moved from its halting place of 20 March and was in position with 23 Battalion on the right, 28 (Maori) Battalion in the centre, and 21 Battalion on the left
on a frontage of about 17,000 yards. The 5th Field Regiment reverted to the command of the CRA and was deployed on the right flank under the Zemlet el Madjel foothills, near other artillery units, where it could support 5 Brigade if necessary.
The brigade was now facing south-west and was therefore in position to resist an enemy coming from that direction. To attack in this way would entail for 10 Panzer Division a march round the north and west of Djebel Tebaga, which does not seem at all likely in view of the distance it must travel and the shortage of petrol. To deploy 5 Brigade in this way was thus to take an extreme measure of defence.
The Corps artillery was very active during 23 March, the accuracy of the fire being attested by prisoners. Between 5 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. ten series of concentrations were put down on known enemy batteries and defended localities, tasks in which the Bofors guns of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment took part. The enemy artillery was also active, helped by the good observation from the flanks, in particular against the main axis and the minefield gaps.
Several enemy fighter-bomber attacks took place during the day but caused no damage. Between 3 and 3.30 p.m. our own tankbusters and fighters put in their first attack, making use of the new indication letter marks. From ground observation and flash-spotting intersections the attacks were made in the areas desired, and many fires were seen.
At last light 24 Battalion moved to occupy the positions reconnoitred on the left flank to the north-west of the Kebili – El Hamma road. The troops were in their positions without interference by 10 p.m.
Eight lanes through the minefields were cleared by 8 Field Company, with assistance from sections of 6 and 7 Field Companies, and marked with cairns and lights. Losses in this task were four killed and four wounded. The 6th Field Company lifted from four to five hundred mines, and another party of engineers began work on a landing strip for the air evacuation centre, sited about ten miles south of Point 201. This was completed on 24 March, and from it about 40 per cent of total evacuations were made by air, thanks to some steady work under difficult conditions by the RAF pilots.
The activities on 23 March ended in some slight gains on both flanks. A further 506 prisoners were captured, making a total of over 2100, nearly all Italians.
The Right Flank on 23 March
‘L’ Force of the French Group had in the meantime been patrolling in the northern foothills of Zemlet el Madjel, often in co-operation with KDG. The ground was very broken and hilly,
and any advance could only be slow, but as mentioned earlier, the enemy was unusually sensitive about a debouchment northwards from Djebel Melab, and the activities of ‘L’ Force had engaged his attention.
The force had been working westwards towards the right of 26 Battalion, but the GOC now intended that it should turn more to the north towards Points 242 and 209, helped by KDG and accompanied by FOOs from 6 Field Regiment. This meant that ‘L’ Force would be finally committed to an advance, and its earlier task of flank protection to the lines of communication would no longer be possible. The FFF Column was still on this duty, and for the time being came directly under Rear Headquarters NZ Corps, commanded by Colonel Crump ,9 the CRASC. In the view of the GOC this was too light a force for the duty, as he considered the lines of communication might still be attacked. He therefore asked Eighth Army for an additional armoured car regiment.
This again was over-insurance, for by this time the whereabouts of the panzer divisions was known – 15 Panzer at Mareth, 21 Panzer at Tebaga, and 10 Panzer to the north-west of Gabes – and the move of 164 Light Division out of the Mareth Line had also been noted. This last move left Pistoia Division on the right of the line, and it was most unlikely that Pistoia should suddenly burst out to the south across the Matmata Hills. The truth was not that the right flank had become more vulnerable, but that the ‘inching ahead’ tactics were swallowing up ‘L’ Force, KDG and Divisional Cavalry, once used as flank guards. These tactics were proving as absorptive of troops as would have one concentrated attack.
However, the request was still-born, for at 4 a.m. on the morning of 23 March General Montgomery sent a message to General Freyberg that was in effect an answer:
Most Secretpersonal for General Freyberg from Army Comd. 30 Corps thrust meeting increased resistance and have decided hold tightly there for the present. Instead will reinforce your thrust with 1 Armd Div and this increased strength should enable you to push on and reach Gabes. 15 Pz Div closely engaged on my front. 10 Pz Div engaged in Gafsa area. Troops available to oppose you are 21 Pz Div and have reason to believe certain elements of this div have gone to Gafsa front. Must also expect more of 164 Div to oppose you. For maintenance and other reasons essential have Corps HQ on your flank and am sending Horrocks to take charge. Am sure you will understand. You and he will work well together and should achieve decisive results. Horrocks and recce parties should reach you tomorrow about 12 noon. 10 Corps to take over when 1 Armd Div have arrived probably afternoon 25 March.
The Main Mareth Front
Operations had not gone as planned on the front of 30 Corps. Although the desired penetration had been achieved, the enemy had been able to counter-attack. The attack commenced at 10.30 p.m. on the 20th, at which time 50 (Northumbrian) Division and 23 Armoured Brigade passed through 51 (H) Division between Mareth village and the sea. The initial task was to cross Wadi Zigzaou, a formidable obstacle with its natural hazards intensified by the enemy’s minefields, ditches and wire. The enemy line was held in the main by Italians, but with 90 Light Division strengthening certain sectors, and with 15 Panzer Division in immediate reserve.
The attackers crossed the wadi in places, though with difficulty, and even then the deep and steep-sided nature of the wadi, and the enfilade fire encountered, sweeping easily across the narrow front, made the foothold on the far bank precarious. The gains were held on 21 March, and were extended during the night 21–22, but on 22 March there was heavy rain and the wadi crossing became more difficult than ever, and for armour and wheeled vehicles wellnigh impossible. Bad weather prevented the air force from interfering with the enemy’s preparations for a counter-attack, which was duly delivered by 15 Panzer Division in the afternoon of 22 March. Much of the bridgehead was recaptured by the enemy, for conditions made it impossible to get more than a handful of tanks and anti-tank guns across the wadi. By 2 a.m. on 23 March it was known that the results of the counter-attack were serious. But, on the other hand, Montgomery considered that the enemy was now committed to offensive action on his eastern flank.
He therefore took the decision which has been given in the message quoted above. It was intended that the move of Headquarters 10 Corps and 1 Armoured Division should start after dark on 23 March, in the hope that a fresh offensive could be launched at Tebaga on 25 March. At the same time 30 Corps, strengthened by 7 Armoured Division from 10 Corps and by 4 Indian Division from Army Reserve, was to launch a new attack in the centre towards Toujane and Zeltene, in an area beyond the artificial defences of the Mareth Line, where, in effect, a gap had already been left by the departure of 164 Light Division to Tebaga. One advantage of this attack was that the lateral road from Medenine through the Hallouf Pass would be opened and the two wings of the army brought closer together. The 4th Indian Division was entrusted with this special attack, to commence after dark on 23 March. Thirtieth Corps
would then have 50, 51 and 7 Armoured Divisions to hold the enemy in the Mareth Line proper, while 4 Indian Division undertook what Montgomery calls a ‘short hook’ round the line.
By the evening of 23 March all troops were withdrawn across Wadi Zigzaou and the whole of the bridgehead given up. Tenth Corps, consisting of Corps Headquarters, 1 Armoured Division (2 Armoured Brigade and 7 Motor Brigade), 69 Medium Regiment, RA, with corps engineers and anti-aircraft artillery, moved from Medenine soon after midnight on 23–24 March, taking the direct road to Foum Tatahouine. With it moved 36 Survey Battery, less the detachments already with NZ Corps.
NZ Corps winds up PUGILIST
While 10 Corps was on its way to Tebaga, the nature of the fighting on the front of NZ Corps remained unchanged. On 23 March 164 Light Division came into the line on the right of 21 Panzer, with a sector including Point 209 to Djebel Tebaga, and 3 and 33 Reconnaissance Units, acting as a group, patrolled the area north of the Djebel between the mountains and the Chotts. Apparently the enemy was as apprehensive of an advance on our part round the north of the Djebel as Freyberg had been of an enemy attack by the same route.
The two German divisions were to some degree mixed up, a common occurrence, and those Italians still fit for fighting were sandwiched in between German units. The 220th Reconnaissance Unit of 164 Light Division was away watching the passes over the hills east of Djebel Melab. In the words of 164 Light this was to ‘stiffen XXI Corps’ (the Italians on the right of the Mareth defences), but 21 Panzer Division, not so polite, said it was to ‘bolster up the Italians’. The advance of ‘L’ Force had borne some fruit, for 164 Division reported certain successes by them in Zemlet el Madjel.
At 3 p.m. on 23 March command of the whole enemy front passed to Major-General von Liebenstein, GOC 164 Division. It is recorded that Mannerini was given ‘new orders’, but what they were is not known. He disappeared from the Tebaga front.
The enemy line was now about three miles north-east of Point 201, but on the east flank curved to the south to take in Point 184, and from there ran into the peaks of Zemlet el Madjel. Between the opposing FDLs was a ‘no-man’s land’ of some width. The enemy took full advantage of the slopes of Djebel Tebaga, and in the afternoon the headquarters of both 164 Light and 21 Panzer Divisions moved there so that they could overlook the front.
Events on the Corps front on 24 and 25 March do not justify recounting in detail, except for certain special activities. The 8th Armoured Brigade continued to advance slowly on the left flank along the slopes of Djebel Tebaga. Divisional Cavalry also operated there, and spent some time trying to find a good track through the Djebel, but had no better fortune than had KDG. The object of these reconnaissances is not clear, for it would have been wild optimism to think of launching an attack by that route. The most that could be achieved was an assurance that the enemy could not come that way either.
The Desert Air Force gradually stepped up its support and on 24 March delivered two strong attacks. The first, by forty-seven Kittyhawks and twelve Hurricane tank-busters, destroyed about twenty vehicles of various sorts, and left many others in flames, including at least four tanks. The second attack was specifically directed against the enemy tanks which were opposing 8 Armoured Brigade. Six tanks were destroyed and one damaged, and the attack led the GOC to send a message of congratulation to the Air Officer Commanding. Our aircraft ran into heavy flak, but the six aircraft which were hit were all landed within our lines. For both attacks the forward troops burned yellow smoke to indicate the front line. During the second attack the enemy burned yellow smoke as well, but the pilots were not deceived.
‘L’ Force and KDG continued to operate together in Zemlet el Madjel, the latter reporting frankly that the ground was not suitable for armoured cars. By nightfall ‘L’ Force was in touch with the enemy on Point 354, the highest point. During the day, on the instructions of the GOC, Brigadier Kippenberger went with General Leclerc to this point in order to give an opinion whether or not an attack could be made by 5 Brigade round the enemy’s left flank. His opinion was that it was possible but difficult, and the difficulty applied specially to transport and supporting weapons, which meant that consolidation might be costly.
It is difficult to believe that there was ever a real intention to attack by this route, which at best was over ground quite unsuitable for any rapid action, but by this time it was abundantly clear that the GOC was not in favour of a strong central thrust with his present forces, and was looking for some way round. However, by the time Kippenberger got back to Corps Headquarters, Lieutenant-General Horrocks had arrived, and events were fast moving to something altogether bigger.
The three battalions of 6 Brigade had on the whole an uneventful time. There were a number of enemy air raids of varying intensity, but damage was negligible and casualties were slight. The only
real excitement was a triviality – the appearance in the late afternoon of 24 March of a lorry and motor-cycle on the El Hamma-Kebili road. Men on Point 201 stood up in their trenches to watch the approach, but machine-gunners spoilt the fun by opening up at 2000 yards’ range, whereupon the motor-cyclist disappeared, apparently wounded, and the truck turned round and went off in a cloud of dust. Driving into the enemy’s lines was an occasional occurrence to both sides.
On the night 24–25 March an attempt was made to capture Point 184, which gave good observation over our positions. At 7.30 p.m., just before the moon rose, D Company of 26 Battalion attacked silently, but the two leading platoons ran into heavy machine-gun and mortar fire, and found the feature steeper than had been expected. Fire called from our own guns silenced the enemy mortars, but the attack was not persisted in, and the company withdrew. It was clear that Point 184 could not be stormed by two platoons.
Throughout this period supplies were coming forward regularly from the New Zealand Field Maintenance Centre, which until 22 March was still at Bir Amir on the eastern side of Wilder’s Gap. On that day the FMC was moved forward to Bir Soltane, which shortened the haul for the Corps transport and transferred the burden to the Army authorities. Lack of supplies at no stage hindered operations, not even the ever-increasing demands for gun ammunition – which speaks volumes for the combined efforts of the NZASC and the RASC units supporting NZ Corps.
On 24 March the enemy appreciated that on the main Mareth front the British forces, especially the armoured forces, were being thinned out, and that the main attack would move to ‘the southwest front’. Thus 15 Panzer Division was moved back to Hir Zouitinat (13 miles south-west of Gabes), where it could support either front and where it was later identified by air reconnaissance. Some nervousness was shown over the advance of 4 Indian Division in the centre and the Italian forces in the area were warned about the importance of blocking Hallouf Pass.
The two divisions in the Tebaga line (21 Panzer and 164 Light) reported various NZ Corps activities during the day, including the air attacks. The enemy by now had no illusions about the final outcome of the Tebaga operations, but was determined to impose delay as long as possible. This attitude was apparently shared by von Arnim, who visited the front during the morning, and decided that the time had come to withdraw into the Akarit
position – the Gabes Gap – commencing that night, 24–25 March. Messe pointed out that he did not have enough MT for so fast a move, and would have to delay twenty-four hours, but did not dispute the orders otherwise for there were still bitter memories of the way in which the non-motorised Italian troops had been left stranded at Alamein. However, later in the day Kesselring also visited the front, came to the conclusion that the situation was not really serious, and persuaded Messe to tell von Arnim that he was going to hit back, and did not consider the withdrawal necessary. But von Arnim adhered to his decision, agreeing only to a postponement so that the withdrawal would now start on the night 25–26 March.
Change of Plan
In the afternoon of 24 March the Army Commander made proposals to Lieutenant-General Freyberg for the future, and shortly after the receipt of his message (at the most an hour or so) Lieutenant-General Horrocks arrived to discuss them. So although the piecemeal activities of NZ Corps continued into 25 March, Operation PUGILIST was now over, and its place taken by something new.
In itself PUGILIST had not been a success. On 30 Corps’ front the check was disappointing to all concerned, not least to Montgomery. But without exception they can be grateful that he did not persist with the attack on First World War lines, and that he changed his plan so speedily. It was a bold decision, all the more marked in that it was taken about 2.30 a.m. after two days of strain.
The point naturally arises whether a move by 10 Corps, the Army Reserve, had been considered at the planning stage. A study of the facts as known at the time shows that 10 Corps was intended to exploit success only on 30 Corps’ front. It is true that de Guingand, Montgomery’s Chief of Staff, had, as an orthodox task, initiated some preliminary staff planning on the possible move of 10 Corps to Tebaga. Such planning must have been very sketchy, however, for the traffic confusion with 4 Indian Division during the early stages of the eventual move of 10 Corps pointed to an absence of study or planning, and lack of maintenance arrangements resulted in 10 Corps, on arrival at Tebaga, having to depend on NZ Corps for supplies. Horrocks himself had no knowledge of the possibility of a move to Tebaga, although there had been many conferences, and much planning, over the various alternatives on the 30 Corps front.
A fact of greater importance, however, is that 10 Corps was so positioned that it could be transferred to Tebaga, where no more than a lodgement had been made. Yet PUGILIST had achieved something. Apart from its attrition of the enemy, a route avoiding the hazards of the Wadi Zigzaou and the fixed defences of the Mareth Line had been established. The most important feature, Point 201, in the entrance to Tebaga Gap had been secured, and a force of all arms threatened the enemy’s flank, and indeed had impelled him to react and redispose his divisions. PUGILIST provided the practicable line of attack for further effort, and although inconclusive everywhere, in itself it gave the opportunity for a second stage, now to begin.