Chapter 11: Concentration at Gabes
ALTHOUGH Point 209 had not been captured until 5 p.m. on 27 March, the further operations of NZ Corps were not delayed. By daylight it was known that the enemy had been completely cleared from the left flank on Djebel Tebaga, and preparations were made to follow 1 Armoured Division, leaving 5 Infantry Brigade Group to clear the right flank and hand over to ‘L’ Force. The situation east of Point 209 was still uncertain. The enemy’s problem was now to withdraw about five weak divisions from the Mareth Line and through the gap at Gabes, the narrow corridor between the sea and the Chotts. There was thus a chance that the enemy might thrust to the south-west to keep the line of escape open, for he still had 15 Panzer Division and at least some of the tanks of 21 Panzer Division.
About midday, therefore, 5 Infantry Brigade Group was ordered to take up a position roughly parallel to the Kebili – El Hamma road, facing south-east, to safeguard the line of communication. In this gun line 28 Battalion would stay where it was, 23 Battalion was to move to its left, and 21 Battalion would prolong the line, each on a frontage of about 3500 yards. Part of ‘L’ Force relieved 21 Battalion on Point 184 in the afternoon. Other moves were dependent on the capture of Point 209, and did not start until about 6.30 p.m., but the group was in position by 10 p.m.
But the anticipated counter-attack had come and gone before 5 Brigade changed position. Unmarked by the brigade, and apparently unknown to NZ Corps Headquarters, the enemy tank thrust to the south-west had been countered by 8 Armoured Brigade, all three regiments of which were engaged from 7 a.m. onwards, and despite losses beat off the enemy attack by midday. Bayerlein says: ‘Early in the morning (27 March) 15 Panzer Division plus 21 Panzer Division ‘s tanks counter-attacked the enemy’s flank from the line Oglat Merteba – Djebel Souinia. The attack took the enemy by surprise, and six more heavy tanks were knocked out. About mid-day 15 Panzer Division had to retire to its start line in face of a strong armoured pincers attack. The objective to cut off the
enemy had not been attained, but the flank attack had forced the enemy to divert the main body of his tanks from the north and set them against 15 Panzer Division. This relieved the thin El Hamma line temporarily.’
Bayerlein’s conclusion is wrong, however. The main body of tanks, those of 1 Armoured Division, maintained their attack on El Hamma without hindrance and 8 Armoured Brigade alone dealt with 15 Panzer Division, although the figure it later reported of seventy-five enemy tanks was about double the actual strength.
Meanwhile Divisional Cavalry was sent up the Kebili – El Hamma road to keep contact with 1 Armoured Division. Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant said later, ‘We tried till 4 p.m. to reach them, but every time our patrols went forward they were fired on by artillery and anti-tank guns and when they went on foot, by small-arms fire. We fired recognition signals and did everything possible to show them that we were friendly troops. On my asking them later if they knew what the recognition signal was, I was informed that they had never heard of it.’ Liaison was finally made on the road northwest of Oglat Merteba. The only consolation to Divisional Cavalry was the capture of 140 prisoners. In defence of 1 Armoured Division it must be said that during the morning it had been in action to both front and rear, and the situation in the rear had been obscured by a series of engagements with enemy tanks and 88-millimetre guns.1
Units of 6 Infantry Brigade Group were ready to move from early morning, but it was not until late afternoon that they were ordered to assemble by 6.45 p.m., with the leading vehicles on the El Hamma road some four miles beyond the Roman Wall. New Zealand Corps had paused while the situation at El Hamma became clearer.
Dealing with the El Hamma Bottleneck
During the day 1 Armoured Division had sustained a check at El Hamma, although it had approached to within two miles of the place. The Germans had produced their usual quick defence. Before first light the GOC 164 Light Division had stopped all retreating forces in the area, and was organising a delaying position there; panzer grenadier regiments were drawn from 15 Panzer Division and 90 Light Division – the latter from north-west of Gabes; and Messe sent anti-aircraft artillery, both heavy and light, from Mareth. It has been estimated that 1 Armoured Division was just one hour
too late, which supports General Freyberg ‘s early view that it should have set off before moonrise.
The going was harder than 1 Armoured Division expected, and the night move was correspondingly slower. On several occasions it had to reduce to a narrow front to cross wadis. Small actions took place with odd German groups of vehicles, and progressively as the night wore on more and more enemy tanks attacked the rear of the division, for after all 1 Armoured Division had passed right through the German lines. The division closed up to El Hamma village in daylight, and as it moved down the forward slope the enemy defences, particularly strong in anti-tank guns, proceeded to take toll. El Hamma was in a bottleneck between Djebel Tebaga on the west and Djebel Halouga on the east, both dominating heights, and there was little or no freedom of manoeuvre for an attacking force. Horrocks soon decided that it was too much for 1 Armoured Division to tackle alone, and informed Eighth Army that El Hamma could not be taken until NZ Corps caught up, which meant that an attack could not take place until midnight.
Shortly after 4.30 p.m. Freyberg received orders to move by moonlight to join 1 Armoured Division. Included in other details were fresh recognition signals for Allied ground forces, which in all the circumstances were badly wanted. Shortly afterwards a second message was received from Horrocks asking if Freyberg would be prepared to launch a second SUPERCHARGE against El Hamma with timing intervals similar to the first. Meanwhile NZ Corps, less 5 Infantry Brigade Group and ‘L’ Force, was to close up to within a few miles.
At 6 p.m. General Freyberg replied with counter-proposals representing strongly that NZ Corps should branch off about ten miles short of El Hamma, and head east and north to Gabes, passing round the southern end of Djebel Halouga. The Corps would advance on a broad front, and Freyberg was clearly relying on the ability of his troops, including 8 Armoured Brigade, to move rapidly over broken country. Freyberg much preferred this course to going straight for El Hamma, where the enemy was in a position to contain both formations for perhaps a day or more. His proposal was in fact a reversion to the alternative plan (SIDEWINDOWS) which had appeared in NZ Corps ‘ Operation Order No. 1 on 16 March for action after the capture of PLUM,2 and it avoided the inevitable infantry losses of set-piece action.
Horrocks was prepared to agree with this proposal, but had doubts about the capacity of the Corps to cross the difficult ground
on the direct route to Gabes. While the proposal was still under consideration General Freyberg arrived unexpectedly at General Horrocks’s Reconnaissance Headquarters, which was located close to Tactical Headquarters 1 Armoured Division. He had come forward in the darkness – it was then 2 a.m. on 28 March – for discussions. He seems to have done this entirely on his own initiative, as it was unknown to the staff of NZ Corps at the time, and no record of it appears in any New Zealand war diary. The discussion took place alongside the tank in which Horrocks was travelling, and cleared up all doubts. Horrocks agreed with Freyberg ‘s proposal as being the better arrangement, but said that he did not think Montgomery would like it as he had definitely made El Hamma the first objective and Gabes the second, and did not want any pockets of resistance remaining on the line of communication. The instructions to Horrocks had been to keep his force collected and well-balanced.
There is no doubt that General Freyberg ‘s wish to go direct to Gabes instead of piling up in column of formations in front of El Hamma was correct, and showed tactical sense combined with an understanding of what NZ Corps could do in the way of crosscountry travel. The alternative of following behind 1 Armoured Division with the prospect of another major attack was in no way appealing, and there was everything to be said for bypassing the El Hamma bottleneck, even on an inner flank.
Formal approval to Freyberg ‘s proposal was sent from 10 Corps at 4 a.m., but was not received at NZ Corps until after 6 a.m. In this message Horrocks repeated his qualms about Montgomery’s reactions, and asked Freyberg to convince Montgomery that the action was in accord with the Army plans. But communications’ between NZ Corps and Eighth Army were very poor at this time, and there is no evidence that Freyberg took any such action. In addition, at 5.10 a.m. on 28 March, Horrocks signalled Montgomery saying that Freyberg and he had met, and went on: ‘Plan at 0500 hrs. NZ Corps to move east at first light objective Gabes by centre line track Oglat Merteba – Gabes. 1 Armoured Division follow and turn south as in original plan. Wished obtain army commander’s approval but signal delays prevented. Reason for change strength of El Hamma bottleneck which prevents deployment. Request air cover for NZ move’.
To this Montgomery replied at 9.15 a.m.: ‘Do not repeat not direct 1 Armoured Division south from Gabes. Position your whole force about Gabes and to west and prevent northward movement. Recce from Gabes towards Mareth with armd cars. 30 Corps ordered to advance but not clear how completely enemy haveevacu-
ated Mareth position.’ From which it may be taken that Montgomery had tacitly accepted the change in plan for NZ Corps. Later in the day Horrocks flew to Army Headquarters for a brief visit, and presumably all plans were then co-ordinated.
New Zealand Corps advances
Late on 27 March, beginning about 8.30 p.m., NZ Corps moved forward a short distance but soon halted to await first light on 28 March. Information about the enemy showed that all German forces had gone from the Mareth Line except for rearguards, but the final words in Montgomery’s telegram to Horrocks showed some doubts. Other reports stated that 21 Panzer Division had moved to the El Hamma front, while 15 Panzer Division with an estimated fifteen tanks was east of Oglat Merteba trying to form a line along Wadi Merteba to keep open the corridor from Mareth to Gabes. The 10th Panzer Division was still facing the American thrust near Maknassy.
In point of fact, during the afternoon of 27 March 15 Panzer Division, disconcerted after its abortive counter-attack in the morning, gave up the idea of making a stand on Wadi Merteba and withdrew another ten miles north-east to Hir Zouitinat, where it was ordered to remain on 28 March and keep the passage open. During the night 27–28 March the last troops were withdrawn from the Mareth Line, and all non-motorised formations were sent direct to the Akarit position.
At dawn on 28 March NZ Corps, less 5 Brigade Group and ‘L’ Force, resumed its advance in desert formation. The KDGs led, followed by Tactical Headquarters, comprising the GOC, GSO II, CRA, CRE, and a navigating party from 36 Survey Battery. Then followed 8 Armoured Brigade Group, Gun Group, 6 Infantry Brigade Group, Main Corps Headquarters, Reserve Group and Rear Corps Headquarters. Divisional Cavalry had remained well forward behind 1 Armoured Division, waiting to lead NZ Corps off on its new axis to the east and north.
Contact with the enemy was first made on the line of Wadi Merteba, where there was an enemy position. F Troop, 4 Field Regiment, attached to KDG, deployed, and after some shooting the armoured cars of KDG rounded up what was left of two complete Italian battalions, a total of 32 officers and 700 other ranks. The position was found to be quite well equipped with anti-tank guns, mortars, etc., but the defensive spirit of the Italians was very low, and in addition they were surprised by the arrival of NZ Corps in force. They came from 125 Regiment of Spezia Division, and had been sent by Messe to extend the El Hamma line to the
south. The main part of their division was still on the coastal end of the enemy line, at this time just in front of Gabes.
By 11 a.m. the forward patrols had turned east and crossed Wadi Merteba south-west of Djebel Halouga. While reconnaissance was being made for suitable crossing places for the Corps, patrols were pushed out for some miles to the east and south. Five tanks had been reported to be moving up from the south, but they moved off to the east without making contact. Meanwhile bulldozers from 6 Field Company were improving the crossings over various small wadis, and other engineers were marking tracks for the advance, nine in all.
The 8th Armoured Brigade crossed the wadi and moved east for some four or five miles. All three regiments saw sporadic action and both sides had small tank losses, but the result of the advance was to press 15 Panzer Division back, and then threaten to outflank it on the side nearer Djebel Halouga. The going was bad, and one regiment comments particularly on the lack of time for maintenance, which meant that it had only fifteen runners left at the end of the day. A pursuit is always strenuous, alike to man and machine.
The gun group moved steadily, the only delay being shortly after 9 a.m., when 4 Field Regiment was deployed and stood by while the prisoners were being rounded up. The group then moved on, turned east, and by 2 p.m. was across Wadi Merteba, engaging odd targets of enemy infantry and transport until last light. Some support was also given to 8 Armoured Brigade.
Sixth Infantry Brigade Group advanced in nine columns, with 26 Battalion in the lead and the guns of 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery deployed among the brigade. It was a tedious and tiring advance, with only spasmodic movement and in hot and dusty conditions. The leading battalion turned to the east at 12.15 p.m., and then the brigade halted for two hours, after which it was instructed to take up a position on the southern edge of Djebel Halouga in order to cover the armour, which would retire behind the infantry for the night.
The group began to move forward again at 2.30 p.m., but very slowly over difficult going. Shortly thereafter it was bombed by enemy Ju88s. Seven men were killed and twenty-two wounded, and two trucks were destroyed. Later two planes bombed and strafed the columns and fatally wounded the brigade intelligence officer.
Finally, Headquarters 6 Infantry Brigade was established a few miles east of Oglat Merteba, and 26 Battalion, 31 Anti-Tank Battery and 3 Machine-Gun Company formed a gun line, the battalion being on Point 222, a pronounced feature on the southern end of Djebel Halouga. The tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade then
withdrew behind the battalion. The remainder of 6 Infantry Brigade Group had to reduce frontage and close up after dark, and it was 7 p.m. before the tail was across Wadi Merteba. The group made no contact with the enemy all day, nor during the night.
5 Infantry Brigade Group on 28 March
When NZ Corps moved forward on 28 March, 5 Brigade Group remained in the flanking position taken up the previous evening. The prisoners from the Point 209 battle had been rounded up the evening before, but did not reach Brigade Headquarters until the morning of the 28th. As a recognition of a worthy foe, Brigadier Kippenberger asked the commanding officer and the adjutant of the enemy battalion to breakfast, and had an interesting talk with the CO on the fighting of the previous few days, the adjutant interpreting. The CO was then given permission to address his men before they were marched off to the prisoner-of-war cage, and did so in a straight-forward and soldierly fashion. He and the adjutant were then sent off in a 15-cwt truck, and took with them, in the Brigade Major’s words, ‘the sympathy of those who watched, for they showed good qualities to the very end.’
During the previous night (27th–28th) there was no sign of any enemy activity, and it was clear that the usefulness of the flank position had ceased. At 9.55 a.m. NZ Corps ordered the brigade to move to an area to the south of Djebel Halouga, moving by the direct track from Point 209 to Oglat Merteba and thence towards Gabes.
At midday the group moved off with 21 Battalion and Tactical Headquarters leading. Owing to a mistake in navigation the column set off to the south-east instead of going at once to the north-east. The brigade commander quickly noted the mistake, but as there was a mass of transport ahead on the correct route, he said nothing and let the march go on, for he knew that another track more or less parallel to the first also led to Gabes. He thought, moreover, that there was nothing to be gained in piling up behind the rest of the Corps, and, on the lower level, was acting towards the main body of NZ Corps much as NZ Corps had acted towards 10 Corps. In other words he wanted to get ahead on his own. It is recounted that his intelligence officer was much relieved not to be ‘ticked off’ when he confessed the error.
So the column headed south-east for about five miles, and passed across the front of ‘L’ Force, which mistook them for the enemy and opened fire. There were no casualties, but two trucks in 21 Battalion were damaged.
The brigade had been warned of the presence of enemy tanks in the area ahead of it, so the 17-pounders of 32 Anti-Tank Battery moved with Tactical Headquarters. But about 1.30 p.m., when it was definite that the group would be moving on a route farther to the east than that originally intended, the column was reorganised to cope the better with the risk. A special advanced guard was formed consisting of 29 Field Battery, one company from 21 Battalion, one section of 23 Battalion carriers, 21 Battalion antitank guns, and the 17-pounders of 32 Battery, all under the command of Major D. J. Robertson3 of 32 Battery. The 6th Field Regiment was also moved up to the front of the column ahead of 21 Battalion. About this time a squadron of armoured cars from King’s Dragoon Guards, under Major P. D. Chrystal (who, it will be remembered, had reconnoitred Chrystal’s Rift), which was patrolling east of the El Hamma road, joined the column unofficially and remained with it for the next twenty-four hours.
The crossing over Wadi el Melab was found to be mined, and had to be passed on a one-vehicle front while the engineers made additional crossings. Three bombs were dropped amongst the transport of 23 Battalion at this crossing, and three men were killed and nine wounded.
Towards dusk the advanced guard took up a position almost due south of that occupied by 26 Battalion of 6 Brigade, but five miles distant, for the course taken by 5 Brigade was at this point about five miles south of the one originally intended. At last light one battery went into action against a group of enemy tanks directly ahead, but the light was against successful shooting. The battalions were then disposed astride the track behind the advanced guard, 28 on the right, 21 in the centre, and 23 on the left. Normal precautions were taken, but patrols sent forward found only vacated enemy positions. At 8.30 p.m. the brigade was instructed to rejoin the main body on 29 March.
The result of the day’s advance for NZ Corps as a whole was reasonably good, for the going was bad. Much enemy equipment was captured, including thirty-four guns, among them three of the detested 88-millimetre.
The Enemy on 28 March
On the Mareth front the enemy had completely withdrawn, with 30 Corps following up as fast as mining and demolitions would allow. He had restored some sort of order to the shattered line facing 10 Corps and NZ Corps and there was a reasonably continuous line
between El Hamma and the sea. Liebenstein Group, consisting of 164 Light Division, 21 Panzer Division and some units of 90 Light Division, was on the enemy right covering El Hamma. Then came the remnants of Pistoia Division, the bulk of 90 Light, and finally Spezia Division in front of Gabes. But in the afternoon Pistoia was sent to the rear and 90 Light took over its sector.
The 15th Panzer Division, in an advanced position opposing NZ Corps, was forced back during the day. The enemy high command – Messe or Bayerlein – decided that it could no longer withstand the pressure of what amounted to two armoured divisions and would have to leave El Hamma. This withdrawal started in the afternoon, to a line behind Gabes, east and west through Oudref. All troops except 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions and 164 Light were to go straight back to the Akarit position; but these were to make a stand on the intermediate line and were to leave strong rearguards behind them.
The enemy had again avoided encirclement, and all except the rearguards were out of the Mareth position and for the moment safe in the Chotts area. But SUPERCHARGE had been alarming to the troops in the Mareth Line, and nearly catastrophic to those at Tebaga, with the result that all withdrawals were faster than usual, indeed so fast that the effectiveness of their delaying measures by mine and demolition was much less than usual. Had it not been for the sanctuary of the Akarit line the enemy would have been kept on the run. The truth was that at last the continued defeats and retirements had weakened the enemy’s physical power to resist, except where the ground might prove eminently suitable for defence. But while the Italians had obviously had enough, the morale of the Germans was as high as ever.
10 Corps ‘ Orders
In the early afternoon of 28 March 10 Corps issued orders prescribing action to be taken by NZ Corps and 1 Armoured Division to capture El Hamma and advance to the line Gabes – El Hamma. The first phase was for NZ Corps to reach the line of the track running from Bir Zeltene to El Hamma (i.e., through Hir Zouitinat) while 1 Armoured Division manoeuvred in the approaches to El Hamma. The second phase was for NZ Corps to occupy the Gabes oasis, while 1 Armoured Division moved round the south of Djebel Halouga and came up on the west of NZ Corps. There were instructions to NZ Corps about the early entry into Gabes of advanced landing ground construction parties and airfield defence units, some of which were to join the Corps and move with it. New Zealand Corps remained responsible for containing the enemy in the Djebel Melab area, where ‘L’ Force still remained.
But during the afternoon events moved faster than expected. New Zealand Corps was almost up to Hir Zouitinat, the enemy was evacuating the Mareth Line with all speed, and the first phase of the order was virtually completed. The order was then amended to give 10 Corps (including NZ Corps) the objective El Hamma to west of Gabes. New Zealand Corps was given a series of bounds northwards across the Gabes – El Hamma road, with its axis about midway between the two towns. The 1st Armoured Division’s move round the south of Djebel Halouga was cancelled. Horrocks emphasised that ‘No major action or attack will be undertaken, as the policy now is to conserve our resources of men and material. The enemy will be dislodged by manoeuvre and fire’. The amendment stated that 51 (Highland) Division was advancing up the main road towards Gabes, and that 4 Indian Division would advance to Gabes from Zeltene.
We see here an example of what can happen when by force of events a headquarters gets out of the picture. Tenth Corps Headquarters had followed 1 Armoured Division, in spite of Freyberg ‘s suggestion that it should remain farther back, and when NZ Corps went off to the north-east, 10 Corps ‘ control over it was very tenuous. In any case events moved so rapidly on that day of 28 March that, not for the first time in desert warfare, formal orders with ‘phases’ could not keep pace, and only the most general directive met the case. Considerable latitude had to be given to subordinate commanders. Freyberg left unaltered his axis of advance through Gabes.
In the early morning of 29 March 1 Armoured Division found that El Hamma had been evacuated, and NZ Corps also found the enemy gone, leaving only a small hastily-constructed minefield. The Corps’ main column moved forward shortly after first light, with KDG patrols on the right and Divisional Cavalry patrols on the left, followed by 8 Armoured Brigade. There were no signs of the enemy during the whole day except for two small groups of tanks away to the north. The axis of advance was just south of Zemlet el Gueloua, and then towards Gabes. Some five miles south on a parallel axis was 5 Infantry Brigade Group, so that the Corps in effect was advancing on a two-brigade front. But in Brigadier Kippenberger ‘s words, 5 Brigade had ‘stolen the lead’ and it is their adventures that lend colour to the day.
The brigade began its advance at 6.30 a.m., preceded by B Squadron, KDG. Then followed the advanced guard, tactical headquarters and 6 Field Regiment, and 23, 21, and 28 Battalions. They
moved 15 miles before meeting any opposition, and were then held up by concrete strongpoints (‘pillboxes’) covering the road from Matmata to Gabes a few miles south of Gabes. Quick action by anti-tank and field guns flushed the enemy and the advance continued, but with 23 Battalion now immediately behind the advanced guard, as it seemed possible that the battalion might have to clear the town. A detachment of 7 Field Company was also brought forward to search for mines and booby traps.
It will be remembered that NZ Corps had been told to bypass Gabes and turn north, but Freyberg preferred to keep his wheeled traffic on the better going that led through Gabes and diverted only Divisional Cavalry, KDG and 8 Armoured Brigade. These were directed to the west of Gabes while still some six or seven miles away from the town. To prevent congestion at the south of Gabes, Freyberg, during the morning, sent Kippenberger a message instructing him to bypass Gabes also. But the message was not received until the concrete strongpoints had been overcome, and, partly because he could see the way into Gabes open and hoped to cut off some enemy troops, and partly because at the point the brigade had now reached the country to the west of the town was seen to be closely planted and well-nigh impassable for wheeled transport, Kippenberger carried on. These few hours on 29 March show an atmosphere of excitement, exhilaration and desire to get to the front, not only within NZ Corps but throughout Eighth Army, that enlivened the grim business of beating the enemy.
Armoured cars of the KDG and 23 Battalion carriers entered Gabes just as the rearguard from 15 Panzer Division was blowing up the bridge at the northern exit, and in fact a few dilatory Germans were captured at the crossing. The brigade commander arrived shortly after the armoured cars. The town was seething with excitement, and indeed the troops were also excited, for this was the first time that Eighth Army had liberated an Allied town.
The head of 30 Corps now also neared Gabes, and the corps commander, Lieutenant-General Leese, joined Kippenberger at the blown bridge. And soon afterwards Lieutenant-General Freyberg and his Tactical Headquarters also entered Gabes, having already seen the Brigade Major of 5 Brigade, who had had the delicate task of explaining to the GOC why 5 Brigade had blocked the NZ Corps ‘ axis by moving directly on Gabes.
There were thus signs of impending congestion at the entrance to Gabes, for 51 (H) Division was only a few miles away, and 4 Indian Division had reached El M’dou on the Matmata road. However, it was arranged that 10 Corps should take the lead, and
that NZ Corps should pass through Gabes. The 1st Armoured Division was to bypass the town well to the west and would then advance on the left of NZ Corps.
The armour of NZ Corps was meanwhile advancing to the west of Gabes, where 8 Armoured Brigade, after desultory exchanges of fire with enemy tanks, finished the day just west of Metouia while Divisional Cavalry turned towards Gabes to complete the encirclement.
The first task was to get 5 Infantry Brigade Group through Gabes. A temporary crossing was being made over the stream of the Wadi Gabes at the northern exit, the first steps being made by civilians throwing stones into the bed after Brigadier Kippenberger had given a lead. Now engineers from 7 Field Company and working parties from infantry units joined in. The advanced guard managed to get across upstream, although the banks got progressively higher and steeper, and carried on the pursuit up the main road. Here the six-pounder anti-tank guns in the advanced guard, firing from the northern edge of the Bou Chemma oasis, found good targets among enemy vehicles and later armoured cars, destroying two of the latter. The KDG and Divisional Cavalry ran into minor trouble north of Bou Chemma, being held up by mines on the road, and it appeared that the enemy was holding a position in front of Metouia and Oudref – the ‘intermediate line’4 – prior to going back into the Akarit position.
Fifth Brigade advanced guard halted north of Bou Chemma while traffic congestion in Gabes was sorted out. By 1.30 p.m. 23 Battalion was across the temporary causeway and had reached Bou Chemma, where it dispersed to the right of the road. The 6th Field Regiment arrived shortly after and by 2 p.m. was in action, although there were few targets. Back in Gabes 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery was in action against enemy aircraft attacking traffic at the crossing, but considering the targets offered enemy air activity was negligible.
Fifth Brigade Headquarters got through Gabes by late afternoon, 21 Battalion shortly after dark, and 28 Battalion finally by 4 a.m. on 30 March after struggling through the town most of the night, with the added discomfort of heavy rain. The brigade was then concentrated between Bou Chemma and the coast, with 23 Battalion forming an outpost line just south-west of Rhennouch, which was reported clear. Tactical Headquarters NZ Corps arrived just north of Bou Chemma in the afternoon, but all the rest of the Corps was still south of Gabes at last light. The 4th Field Regiment crossed the stream during the night over a new causeway made by
7 Field Company, and arrived north of Bou Chemma early on 30 March, having been given special priority of movement.
The immediate intention of Eighth Army was to get NZ Corps forward as a first step in what was hoped would be a speedy move to Sfax. Army Intelligence thought that the enemy would not delay at Wadi Akarit if hard pressed, an example of the over-optimism that marked it about this time. In any case a limiting factor to the Corps’ activities was the Army Commander’s wish, now repeated in a message from 10 Corps, that neither NZ Corps nor 1 Armoured Division should incur heavy losses, especially in tanks. This wish expressed only a short-term view, however, and was in preparation for the future role of both formations in operations against the Akarit line. In other words, they were to conserve their efforts for the next few days, in readiness for an unrestricted effort in the near future.
The Enemy on 29 March
It is difficult to clarify the movements of the enemy formations about this time. The general policy was for rearguards from German units to resist strongly while first the Italians and then the Germans went back into the Akarit position. At this moment the fighting value of the Italians was virtually nil, and the defence was left to the German group, 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions, and 90 and 164 Light Divisions. Of these, 164 Light had been almost shattered at Tebaga and all formations were much intermingled. Often the armoured units of 15 and 21 Panzer were on a different sector from the unarmoured.
By daylight on 29 March the four German divisions had rearguards on the El Hamma – Gabes line, in order from west to east 164 Light, 21 Panzer, 90 Light and 15 Panzer, the last-named having taken over the sector previously held by Spezia Division. The transport situation about this time is described by one formation as ‘catastrophic’, and a day later Bayerlein reports quite simply, ‘164 Light Division had to walk as it had no MT’. By midday on 29 March the pressure from Eighth Army – mostly from NZ Corps – was strong enough to force the rearguards to give up this line and go back to the intermediate line through Oudref. Even here there was no respite, for the pressure in the afternoon, from both NZ Corps and 1 Armoured Division, was so strong that the enemy headquarters decided to withdraw all troops forthwith to the Akarit position. But for the advantage of this semi-prepared position on a narrow front with secure flanks, it seems that the enemy might well have been kept on the run, instead of having seven or eight days’ respite.
The End of the SUPERCHARGE Phase
On 30 March KDG and Divisional Cavalry, each with a battery and an engineer detachment under command, moved forward through Oudref and their advanced patrols reached the south bank of Wadi Akarit. A few prisoners and abandoned vehicles were captured. The going through Metouia and Oudref was not easy, there were many steep-sided marshy wadis, patrols got across only with difficulty, and obviously much engineer work would be wanted before NZ Corps could cross on anything other than a narrow frontage.
Enemy movement could be seen to the north of Wadi Akarit, and there were clear signs that the enemy was not only holding the northern bank, but also that he was there in strength. The 25th and 26th Batteries and Mac Troop were in action north of Oudref in the early afternoon, and were shelled spasmodically in return, but otherwise there was no contact with the enemy.
The 8th Armoured Brigade operated north-west of Oudref, its most advanced regiment moving quite some distance towards and even across the upper part of Wadi Akarit. But it was stopped by enemy demolitions. It came back with a gun captured from 21 Panzer Division.
Still farther west, 1 Armoured Division cleared El Hamma and by the evening of 30 March had advanced as far as the foothills of Djebel Zemlet el Beida, ten miles to the north. There it ran into increasingly strong defences, and no more progress was possible.
For NZ Corps engineering work had first priority – crossings over wadis and demolitions, clearing minefields and road verges, etc. This meant working round the clock, and all three field companies and the field park company took their share. The biggest demolition of many, on the main road near Oudref, was not ready for traffic until 9 a.m. on 31 March.
In all ranks of the Corps morale was high. They were once more in sight of the sea, in a cultivated countryside now becoming steadily greener with the onset of spring. Fifth Brigade Group quickly discovered warm thermal waters in its area and the dust and grime of recent weeks soon disappeared. During 30 March the brigade moved round the west of Djebel ed Aissa to a position two miles south of Oudref. There was some talk of an attack to test the Akarit defences, but the brigade commander was not in favour of a serious attack, and succeeded in getting approval for patrols only, which 21 Battalion provided.
The move forward of 6 Brigade Group was much hindered by stoppages cause by the density of traffic in and around Gabes. It was intended that the brigade should move through on the night 29–30 March, but after about one and a half hours’ progress, Brigadier Gentry halted until first light as the going was so bad and the traffic so dense. Main Headquarters NZ Corps, also on the way forward, struggled on through the night, and finally reached a point west of Bou Chemma early on 30 March.
Sixth Infantry Brigade was not clear of Gabes until mid-afternoon, and even then only 24 and 26 Battalions reached their new area – south-west of Bou Chemma – by last light. The 25th Battalion did not arrive until the morning of 1 April, by which time the brigade had closed up on the rear of 5 Brigade. They were now near enough to the sea to be sent there for a swim, which for all New Zealanders was a special treat.5
Most of the Reserve Group gradually assembled west of Gabes, and the various administrative units opened replenishment points there, but the congestion of transport made it very difficult to find suitable locations.
The whole Corps was concentrated in the new area by 31 March. At 5 p.m. on that day NZ Corps lost its identity, and 2 NZ Division came under 30 Corps for operations and 10 Corps for administration. The 8th Armoured Brigade and certain other units remained with the Division, but the French Group passed to the direct command of 10 Corps. Activities in no way ceased, and 31 March was a day of patrolling and other preparations for the next stage. The Mareth operations, however, were over.
On 30 March General Montgomery sent the following message to Lieutenant-General Freyberg:
My very best congratulations to NZ Corps and 10 Corps on splendid results achieved by the left hook. These results have led to the complete disintegration of the enemy resistance and the whole Mareth position. Give my congratulations to all your officers and men, and tell them how pleased I am with all they have done.
It remains to record the cost. Of the offensive weapons, the most marked loss was in tanks. Over a period from 21 to 31 March 8 Armoured Brigade lost thirty-one Shermans and Grants, and twenty Crusaders, roughly one-third of the strength with which it had started.
The total casualties of New Zealand troops were 646, made up as follows:
The ‘attached troops’ – 8 Armoured Brigade, KDG, ‘L’ Force, etc. – suffered 299 casualties over the same period. The Desert Air Force had lost only seven or eight pilots, a clear vindication of Broadhurst’s policy.
Tebaga in Retrospect
The initial attack of the Mareth /Tebaga operations took place at Mareth on 20 March. By 27 March, one week later, the enemy was in full retreat, in considerable disorganisation, and in no fit state to make another effective stand until, over a fortnight later, he was among the hills at Enfidaville. It is certainly not easy, and rarely is it safe, to prophesy with certainty the outcome on the field of battle. Nevertheless, it is probable that this victory could have been achieved more swiftly and could have been even more damaging to the enemy.
General Freyberg ‘s handling of the Tebaga Gap operations in the early stage now seems curiously hesitant, and there is no doubt that a quick thrust through the weak defences there on 21 and 22 March would have yielded rich dividends, with highly favourable repercussions at Mareth. The risk had been correctly assessed and the New Zealand Corps should have been well able to deal with any enemy reaction beyond the Gap. Delay at Tebaga allowed the enemy to offer far more resistance to 30 Corps than the Eighth Army plan envisaged.
The delay, though, was the product of several factors, none of them inconsiderable. For one thing, the GOC thought that the 30 Corps attack was on much too narrow a front, and from the outset was therefore dubious of a quick success at Mareth.
Manpower, always a matter which weighed heavily with General Freyberg, was another factor. The latest draft of reinforcements – the first for fifteen months – had been absorbed, yet the Division was still short of 2400 men in an establishment of 16,000. This compared favourably enough with other divisions, both Allied and enemy, but the 2 NZEF was a national force whose fate had already trembled in the balance, and further serious losses could lead to its entire withdrawal from the Middle East theatre.
Further, if the New Zealand Corps emerged at once beyond the Gap, could the GOC rely on his own armour? The course of events at Sidi Rezegh, Minqar Qaim, Ruweisat and El Mreir was not yet
overshadowed by more recent successes, evidence was still freely available that the 88-millimetre gun continued to dominate the battlefield, and at the end of a long and partially unprotected line of communication there was still an element of chance that the armour, a brittle arm, could suffer crippling losses at the hands of the concentrated panzer divisions, depleted though they were.
The burden of decision rested squarely on General Freyberg ‘s shoulders, and he seems to have kept it there, for no record has been discovered that he discussed the problem with any of his subordinate commanders, although of course there was no call on him to do so. Nor apparently did he warn Eighth Army of any conditions likely to impede the rapid execution of his task, an action which, in the circumstances, it might have been wiser to take, although it is uncertain whether he realised the harmful effects of delay at Tebaga. Altogether, the combined circumstances of the occasion seem to have exercised a cramping effect on his initiative.
An early, full and vigorous thrust at Tebaga would almost certainly have achieved success both at Tebaga and on the 30 Corps front. Failure to provide this created a situation in which the Army Commander was bound to intervene.
The breakthrough operation at Tebaga, once mounted, created a new standard in co-operation between infantry and armour and the Air Force. It closely resembled the Germans’ own ‘blitzkrieg’ and was indeed more closely integrated, and thus more damaging, than the thrusts which had decimated and scattered the Eighth Army earlier in the war. The terrain confined the power of the thrust almost entirely to the floor of the Gap, and here the Air Force concentrated its close support, strafing and bombing, while the artillery barrage, weighty and devastating, pounded irresistibly to the objective and beyond. The path of the armour and the infantry was well paved, but they, in any case, were not to be denied. A new pattern was set for the future, and a new standard produced by which co-operation between ground and air could henceforward be measured.