Chapter 16: Conclusion
THE Division, then, had returned to Egypt, whence it had set out early in November with high hopes which were now amply fulfilled. Fulfilled in the advance of nearly 2000 miles from Alamein to Tunis, the longest military progress in history, in which Eighth Army had advanced at the average rate of more than ten miles for each day for almost six months. For the Division the jousting season of the war was over, and no more would battles, exhilarating, costly, disappointing or successful, sway backwards and forwards over the familiar desert. Here the exemplary fortitude and bravery of the troops had been the common factors in all encounters, the variants being supplies, equipment and skill in leadership. Not for many long months, not until after all the bitterness of Cassino, would the troops again experience the exhilaration of pursuing an out-fought, out-manoeuvred enemy. Not until after the Battle of the Senio would they again fight over so much territory in so little time. Never again would the Division, as before El Alamein, stand at the crossroads of history, and by its very presence and quality, with its blood and by its skill, wrest from the battlefield a decision that would influence the strategy of the Allies and the whole course of the war.
Hard fighting and physical privations, different in nature but comparable to those experienced in Africa, certainly lay ahead, but the return to Egypt had brought to an end a type of warfare that is unique. Here man’s most modern weapons, in a theatre remote from the obstructions of civilisation, were pitted against each other in a struggle in which the outcome depended on the tactical skill of the commander, the fortitude of the troops and the amplitude of supply. Supply, of water, armour, munitions, motor fuel, confined the war in the desert to particular areas more firmly than did geographical boundaries. In the long run command in the air became decisive, for as Rommel ruefully noted, ‘Anyone who has to fight, even with the most modern weapons, against an enemy in complete command of the air, fights like a savage against modern European troops, under the same handicaps and with the same
chance of success.’1 Command of the sea was equally decisive, for he who possessed it deprived his adversary of supply, and at the same time took advantage of this medium for the carriage of the enormous bulk of his own war material.
The long advance from Alamein to Tunis was thus a campaign demanding the optimum tactical skill of its commander, for he had so to move his ground forces that the greatest advantage could be gained from predominance in the air and at sea. Landing grounds and ports were of much greater tactical significance than wadis, soft sand and mountain barriers. Finesse in manoeuvre had become the ability to combine the requirements of land, sea and air.
Eighth Army had in General Montgomery a commander willing and able to manage these diverse elements which time, the misfortunes of earlier commanders and the workshops of the Allies had united to put into his hands. Other volumes in this series have shown how and why success had eluded his predecessors, either through inability to control one or other of these elements, land, sea and air forces, or because the supply of one, or all, was at some critical period inadequate in quantity or quality. In the period covered by this volume all that was needed was there in abundance – Montgomery was the man who used this abundance to the greatest advantage. If the historian is to judge him he need not go beyond the words of the most famous of the enemy desert generals, Rommel, who, in considering the battle of Alam Halfa – and it could have been Medenine, or Mareth, or Akarit – said: ‘There is no doubt that the British Commander’s handling of this action had been absolutely right and well suited to the occasion, for it enabled him to inflict very heavy damage on us in relation to his own losses, and to retain the striking power of his own force.’2 Montgomery himself often expressed this concept in one word, balance, and the retention of perfect balance became one of the predominant features of all his operations.
It is in the field of tactics that the lasting interest in this campaign will be found. There were no strategic surprises, if one excepts the Anglo-American landings in North- West Africa just before it began, and the disappointing development of that enterprise. For even though the self-willed shortsightedness of both Mussolini and Hitler prevented them from seeing the issues at stake, all the rest of the political and military leaders on both sides recognised, after Alamein and the Anglo-American landings, that it was only a matter of time before the Axis was driven from the whole of Africa. The decision to make those landings had in fact been made in July 1942,
and by October the watchful Italian Foreign Minister was confiding to his diary that all the information he had led to the conclusion that landings were going to be made, and that, Africa secured, the Allies planned to launch their blows against the Axis. Italy was geographically and logically their first objective.3
Before Alamein, Rommel, while in Rome in September, bluntly informed the Duce that unless supplies were sent on at least the scale he demanded, the Axis would soon have to get out of Africa. He concluded his report to Hitler in similar but more emphatic terms. After Alamein, and after the landings in North- West Africa, Rommel wanted to withdraw to Wadi Akarit, where he could prepare a position against which armour would be little use and which could not be outflanked. He wanted to make only such delaying operations as would not involve him in further losses, and he wanted it accepted that even this drastic step could only serve to gain time, for he now believed that final defeat in Africa was inevitable. His ultimate object was to evacuate the best of his troops to Europe for the continuance of the struggle, and in his judgment Akarit alone would give him sufficient geographical advantage to do this. He calculated, too – an interesting point in view of subsequent criticism of Montgomery’s tardiness – that it would take Eighth Army ‘several months’ to transport sufficient material through the whole of Libya to enable it to attack at Akarit with assured prospect of success.4 As we have seen, Montgomery fought three major operations, and many lesser ones, between Alamein and Akarit, but by using his army on the docks of Tripoli suffered no serious delays waiting for a build-up of supply.
The Italian general, Messe, sent in January to command the Italian forces in Tunisia, defined his new duties as ‘commander of the dispersed forces’. Before leaving Italy he confessed that his task was hopeless, and that he thought his appointment was a backhanded blow struck at him by Cavallero to get rid of him, ‘since he, too, must be convinced that there are no prospects for us in Tunisia.’ Messe felt that he was deliberately being deprived of his reputation.5
Rommel’s proposition was an interesting one and his analysis of final defeat correct, for there is no reason to suppose that the Allies would not have retained command in the air and on the sea, but it is interesting to reflect that had he refused to accept battle between Alamein and Akarit unfortunate consequences would have resulted for the Allies, particularly as regards the timetable for the invasion of Sicily, which was decided in January 1943. The enemy position at Akarit could not in fact be outflanked, nor could it be subjected
to tank attack. An earlier appearance of Rommel’s forces in this area would have had decided repercussions on the Anglo-American force which was experiencing teething trouble – as would Rommel’s own presence. Axis supply could have been concentrated instead of dispersed, and the Axis air forces would have been in a much better position to support ground operations. The fifty-two tanks lost at Medenine and the casualties and lost equipment at Mareth, to say nothing of motor fuel and ammunition expended, would have been of great value in the Akarit position. But because Mussolini refused to abandon Tripolitania for political reasons, and then failed to recognise the tactical advantage that would accrue if only minimum delay was made at Mareth, and because to Hitler each yard of ground lost was interpreted as a personal affront, Rommel did not have his way. Moreover, as related earlier, in the complicated area of the service and political hierarchy between Mussolini and Hitler and their field commanders, there was no unanimity on this question. The refusal to withdraw to Akarit was, however, the chief, perhaps the only, strategic decision that, if reversed, might have prolonged the final surrender in Africa beyond the actual date of 13 May. This in turn might have delayed the invasion of Sicily, which, unquestionably, would have added grave stresses to the relationship between London, Washington and Moscow. For Stalin was waiting with some acerbity for the promised opening of the Second Front. The two great western Allies had not in fact made the vital decisions concerning the theatre of operations after Africa. This is a matter which has been too well told, in Churchill ‘s The Hinge of Fate, in The White House Papers of Harry Hopkins, and in this series, in a summary by Professor Phillips,6 to require more than brief mention here. The point that must be made is that as late as the end of November 1942, when the end of the war in Africa had become more than a possibility, no decision had been made concerning future operations. Indeed, in Washington, far from Ciano’s prognostication in October, plans for Italy revolved round thoughts of a heavy bombing programme.7 The attack on Sicily was not decided until January, at Casablanca, where the target date, ‘the favourable July moon’, was accepted, and it was not until May, at the Washington Conference after the end of the war in Africa, that instructions were given for plans to be prepared for the invasion of the Italian mainland. From the strategic point of view, then, the only decision to be borne in mind is that the target date
for Sicily was early July 1943 – the invasion actually began on 10 July – so that it was necessary for all operations to be completed in time for the units and commanders taking part to be ready.
It is stated above that General Montgomery was pre-eminently suited to command Eighth Army at this time. In the years to come, with Montgomery firmly seated among the great captains, and when the voluminous comment and criticism has been sifted by the accumulated wisdom of time, it will be North Africa to which historians will turn for the first flowering of the genius of his command. El Alamein, regardless of the fact that it was Montgomery who galvanised Eighth Army into urgent activity there, and who fought the great offensive battle, may always be associated to some extent with the names of other commanders. Wavell, Auchinleck and, at the end, Alexander, all made their own contributions at this historic battlefield. But as the gap between the old battlefields and the new was widened, as Montgomery gained experience, so it can be seen that his became the sole hand in control. Montgomery was the first to advance beyond El Agheila. Mareth was the first battle which was entirely a Montgomery battle. Tebaga soon followed. Enfidaville was Montgomery’s first failure, and it is Alexander’s name which will be indelibly linked with the final victory.
Closely identified with Montgomery’s grasp of the required tactics was his determination to make certain that his will was not impeded by the differing opinions of his immediate subordinates. After El Alamein an alteration that he made to the command structure brought General Horrocks to 10 Corps, in which were the armoured divisions. At this early stage in Horrocks’s career his greatest asset was his approach to the directions of the Army Commander: these were to be carried out to the letter, without question. Montgomery was not hampered by the accumulation of wrong ideas concerning the use of armour which had mutilated earlier desert battles. His guiding rule was co-ordination, whether in defence or attack, and the narratives of the battles at Mareth and at Akarit or at Enfidaville can be searched in vain for evidence of dispersal of effort or lack of co-ordination between all arms. No longer in attack need the infantry fear that their sternest endeavours would be frustrated because the tanks had failed to arrive at the critical moment. Never again, with the exception of PUGILIST, did the armour fail to advance and to fan out when a breach had been made. In the defensive battle at Medenine no tanks clashed against tanks: instead Rommel was forced into that cavalry nightmare – charging an impregnable gun line. It is difficult to imagine these various situations under an earlier regime.
The commendable spirit with which General Horrocks, in whose 10 Corps 2 NZ Division fought for most of the campaign, regarded the orders of the Army Commander, left what dissension there was to the divisional commanders; perhaps to two only, Freyberg and Tuker. The record of the various conferences makes it abundantly clear that while Montgomery and Horrocks spoke with one voice, Freyberg frequently, and Tuker sometimes, disagreed. It would be quite incorrect to jump to the conclusion that Freyberg was not very biddable, and to leave it at that. For Freyberg had experience and battle wisdom, as well as service seniority. No other commander in Eighth Army had served so continuously in battle, no other had argued his way so consistently through the ‘bad days’. The Division fighting together as one formation, the set-piece attack, the taped start lines, the lifting barrage, the punched hole and the fanning armour, all these were the epitome of Freyberg and his battle-wise staff. Further, Freyberg was responsible for the prudent use of his Division to his government, which never quite forgot Greece or Crete, and which throughout the whole of this campaign was balancing the requirements of the Mediterranean against the demands of the Pacific. Small wonder that against this background Freyberg frequently raised his voice in dissent, still less wonder that he was listened to with respect. Only on one occasion, during PUGILIST, did Freyberg ‘s ‘independence’ interfere with the complete fulfilment of Montgomery’s plan. During the later Enfidaville battles Freyberg carried on with the Army plan in direct contradiction to his own opinion. But a man must be judged on his total effort, and during the whole of this campaign Freyberg ‘s co-operation with Montgomery, his translation of plan into action, his battle sense and his leadership were such that his name will ever be associated with it immediately after that of his Army Commander.
The lasting interest in this campaign will centre on the tactics employed by the commanders on both sides – for the Allies the effort to pin down and destroy the Axis forces, or to keep them on the run, and for the Axis the task of avoiding destruction while offering the maximum delay. Much has been written already of the skill with which Rommel conducted his retreat. While not denying this, it is always necessary to remember that a retreating force has certain advantages, in the selection of ground on which to do battle, and in retreating upon supplies instead of further stretching supply lines. General Freyberg said in Greece that less skill was required to conduct a retreat than an advance, and in Greece the Division learned that relatively small forces can impose damaging delays. Once a small force has made its opponent deploy it retains a certain tactical advantage in that it alone knows how
long it is going to delay, and where next it is going to stand. The advancing force must almost invariably be prepared for the worst possible contingency. In Greece, to take an example, the German troops launched three heavy attacks after the New Zealanders had withdrawn, at Servia, at Olympus and at Thermopylae. At Platamon one battalion, the 21st, with no armour or anti-tank guns, forced the deployment of half a tank corps, and then vanished to leave the enemy striking at the air.
The problems were the same between Bardia and Enfidaville. Lightly armoured reconnaissance forces led the advance: a handful of tanks, a few 88-millimetre guns and some pockets of motorised infantry delayed it. When contact was made the problem for the advancing force was whether a quick attack would be successful, or whether it was necessary to delay until a larger force was deployed. In Greece the Germans outnumbered the British force by five to one, and had command of the air. In this campaign the Allies had approximately three to one superiority and command of the air. The tactics employed in both cases were identical. Light reconnaissance forces made contact, the closely following corps containing armour, artillery and infantry in its advanced elements went immediately into action, and if this was not enough the resources of the whole corps were deployed. In neither case were light advanced elements needlessly thrown away, for in both a little deliberation could achieve the desired result with small loss. During the whole of the advance covered by this volume it is difficult to see that different action at El Agheila, Nofilia, at Dor Umm er Raml, Azizia, or Takrouna on first contact, would have altered the final date of 13 May by very much.
Before leaving the comparison between the campaigns in Greece and in Africa, it is interesting to remember that the advancing force in both theatres had command in the air, and that in neither case was it used to the greatest advantage. In Greece the Germans had virtually uncontested supremacy, but their air force was not able to interfere with the withdrawal of the British force, largely because instead of concentrating on one or two key targets – bottlenecks in the communications network – it dispersed its effort over the whole field. In Africa the Allied air forces were not seriously contested, but although their contribution was very great they did not create the havoc among the retreating columns that their supremacy might indicate. It is probable that the main reason for this was that attacks were made from too great a height, and that by working much closer to their targets our aircraft would have been more certain of their destruction.
The task of Eighth Army was to pin down and destroy the enemy forces, or to keep them on the run. Which was the real intention? Time and again the orders repeated the words pin down and destroy, and during the closer examination of the earlier chapters some disappointment was recorded that this had not been done, and some reasons advanced in explanation. But in the over-all picture it is clear that such disappointment is not valid, with one exception to be mentioned later. Immediately after the breakthrough at Alamein, Tripoli became the objective in the minds of most in Eighth Army, including Montgomery.8 Tripoli, so long sought after, so illusory. There was less of the hope that the bulk of the enemy force could be destroyed or captured. Indeed, it was not until after El Agheila that the suspicion was removed from Montgomery’s mind that the enemy might again break out and make back for Egypt, and he made his dispositions with this possibility in view. The New Zealand Division might well have been disappointed that it did not have enough armour, and that refuelling delays – a normal friction – prevented what armour there was reaching the road in time. But on final analysis Montgomery’s own explanation in his Memoirs is probably valid, that he wanted to get the position quickly and that the best way to do this was to bluff and manoeuvre, ‘to bustle Rommel to such an extent that he might think he would lose his whole force if he stood to fight.’ This was certainly what happened, and if a case is to be made that the outflanking force should have been stronger, it must also be possible to demonstrate that the assembly, march and supply of that larger force would not in itself have imposed further delays, and that Montgomery was completely wrong, at the time, in imagining that the notoriously impetuous Rommel would attempt a sudden thrust towards Egypt, as he had done before.
Wavell once compared the art of waging war with that of playing contract bridge. He wrote that calling in bridge could be regarded as strategy, the play of the hand, tactics. Strategy, in war as in bridge, can be mastered in a very short time by ‘any reasonable intelligence’, for although in both there is scope for judgment, boldness and originality, both are to a certain degree mechanical and subject to conventions. However, in the end it is the playing of the cards that matters, and in war the hand is always played by the commander in the field. Wavell rated the skilful tactician above the skilful strategist, especially he who played bad cards well.9 This homely analogy, as Wavell called it, can be applied to the battle for the
Mareth Line, where Montgomery did the calling and his corps commanders played the hands. The first game went to Montgomery after the model defensive action at Medenine. Montgomery lost the second game by calling PUGILIST, but won the rubber with a grand slam in SUPERCHARGE II. It is the lost game which concerns us here.
In calling PUGILIST, Montgomery exercised boldness, originality and judgment. Now that all the cards are face upwards on the table, there can be few quibbles over his bid. Success hinged upon the inability of the Axis to counter-attack on the main Mareth front, and all other factors which eventually militated against that success, the width of the front at Mareth and the consequent difficulty in getting anti-tank guns and armour across Wadi Zigzaou among others, are of lesser importance. As the game was called, and with the cards held, there need not have been a counter-attack. The reasons for the failure of PUGILIST have been examined, and the conclusion reached that General Freyberg played his hand badly: he did not use his good cards well. But that was in the short run. Napoleon’s maxim yet holds good, that the general who wins is the general who makes the fewest mistakes, and among the players Freyberg remained the star performer. With the cards dealt for SUPERCHARGE II firmly in his hand, he did not fail to take a trick.
There will always remain the speculation as to the course of events if PUGILIST had succeeded. First and foremost, it would have added greatly to Montgomery’s military reputation, for the plan was finely calculated and its fulfilment would have been spectacular. It is not unreasonable to suppose that much of the enemy would have been cut off and captured, or at least so bustled that reorganisation at Akarit would have been impossible, which in turn raises fresh possibilities for the final battles at Enfidaville. But no one can be certain, for no exact calculations can be made without positive knowledge of the enemy’s reaction to these changed circumstances, and only the events themselves could supply it. In war, each and every circumstance of itself produces unforeseen frictions, a fact which renders so unacceptable the findings of armchair strategists.
At Enfidaville, Eighth Army attempted without success to apply the techniques so arduously learned in the desert to a changed topography. This has been made clear in the relevant chapters. On first encounter the whole of Eighth Army went with its commander, and there were no dissenting voices. But after the first unsuccessful engagement the two most seasoned commanders, Freyberg and Tuker, began raising objections which, although extremely pertinent, were disregarded. The interest in the final operations lies, then, not in the strenuous fighting that took place, but in the object of it all. This object was Montgomery’s own determination to drive Eighth
Army through to Cape Bon. From the historical point of view, here was Montgomery’s first failure, for PUGILIST was virtually one part of a battle in which Montgomery retained the initiative throughout and can be excepted. Upon final analysis the operations that began on 19 April, and included the notable infantry achievement of the capture of Takrouna, may well be regarded as an ambitious, even an incautious, but nevertheless legitimate ‘try-on’. For the only way to discover if the enemy intends to stand and fight is to attack and find out.
That is the most favourable case that can be made. On the other hand it is fair to say that optimism in war must have its limits, and that it might have been reasonable to have realised that the enemy must stand and fight, or perish. Stalingrad, where for the first time since Napoleon a Prussian army had been captured intact, had given no indication that capitulation would not be delayed until the last possible minute. In somewhat similar circumstances, for the enemy had no means of retreat, Montgomery initially attacked a mountainous, essentially defensible area, held, on contemporary calculations, by at least the quantity of troops that had opposed Eighth Army at Akarit, and probably by more. Armour was of little use to either side, and the bulk of the Allies’ air power was being used on the First Army front. Where at Akarit the break-in attack had been made by three divisions, with a fourth division briefed for exploitation, at Enfidaville two divisions attacked, and the major exploitation role was to have been accomplished by one of the attacking divisions. The other two divisions had minor roles. Upon the failure of this operation a new plan was made in which two divisions, one of them inexperienced, were to attack the hill positions, and the New Zealand and 7 Armoured Divisions were to break out. The area held by the Axis was as readily defensible as the Cassino area in Italy and in many ways comparable with it. The line could not be outflanked, as at Mareth, and had considerably more depth than Akarit where initial penetration breached the position. Eighth Army did not have sufficient infantry to capture the Enfidaville position, and without it the plans that were made were quite unrealistic. Without doubt the ‘fight and find out’ theory was here pressed too hard, but perhaps in terms of the experience that is required to test and temper a great military commander, Enfidaville was salutary and necessary.
The campaign as a whole was notable for some interesting innovations in battle technique, or for the development of what was best in the old. The most impressive advance was in the field of co-operation, for as observed at the beginning of this chapter, the nature of the campaign demanded that the Eighth Army commander
must combine the requirements of land, sea and air. Only by ensuring that tactical objectives included advanced landing grounds and that troops, as well as capturing them, cleared10 them for immediate operations, was supremacy in the air used to the greatest advantage. In similar fashion troops assisted in the rapid re-establishment of ports, so that supplies could be brought in bulk and so that the striking arm of the Navy – MTBs operated from Tripoli, Sfax and Sousse within a day or two of capture – could work close to the front line. Much of the Eighth Army did round-the-clock stevedoring at Tripoli, with the result that the Army was based on that port within weeks of capturing it and the long land haul from Benghazi was eliminated.
Many innovations were introduced in the air force’s vital role of assisting the ground troops. The El Agheila operation had demonstrated that there was room for improving the demarcation of bomblines when the air force was required to work close to advancing troops, and the ‘left hook’ at Mareth saw much development in the techniques of using coloured smoke, day and night landmarks, and ground to air communications. The ‘tank-buster’, which was in effect an airborne anti-tank gun, first began its devastating work in Tunisia and probably destroyed more tanks (except at Medenine) than the ground forces. The ‘cabrank’ system, where fighters and tank-busters poised in the air in continuous circuit to be directed on opportunity targets from the ground, was begun at Tebaga. At Enfidaville aircraft were first used in Eighth Army as artillery observation posts, with gunners trained to operate them. Carpet or area bombing, of localities declared of nuisance value to the ground troops, was undertaken, and the closely ranked formations of eighteen or more bombers, at medium height, became a familiar sight to the troops. That busy maid-of-all-work, the Douglas transport, was given a new role, the evacuation by air of sick and wounded. And probably of equal importance was the great impetus to morale that this closer co-operation, these new and diverse duties, gave to all ranks in the air and on the ground.
For the troops it seemed that the old days of frustration, when effort and sacrifice, for some reason or other, had been thrown away, were over. The old, deep, grievances that had centred on the use of armour were forgotten and replaced by a new and growing admiration for the determination and skill of the Armoured Corps. The battle at Medenine, where Montgomery relied almost entirely on his anti-tank guns sited in a defensive network in advanced positions, and on his artillery which separated attacking tanks and their supporting infantry, with which it dealt methodically; the battle
at Tebaga, where tanks led the infantry in the most perfect example of united action between ground and air that any army, British or German, had yet seen; the spectacular ‘break-outs’ by armour and mobile infantry at Mareth and Akarit; and the everyday, forceful reconnaissance by light armoured and cavalry corps, all of these things provide a fascinating field for study, and in their growth and development gave to the Eighth Army its collective élan and unbridled confidence.
In these diverse activities, in this fruitful field of military endeavour, the New Zealand Division, under its much experienced and battle-wise commander, Freyberg, whose name was already inseparable from his division, played its part, and added to, and drew from, the accumulated pool of knowledge.
For the men of the Division the great advance was perhaps the high-tide of the war. Not only did the relentless, onwards movement signify success, which is heady wine, but time and the changing panorama of the Mediterranean coast of Africa combined with that success to give perspective to that total experience of war in the desert. All now had meaning. The scars were healing, and although the childhood picture of the gently moving column of dust, which might be a djinn, had faded for ever, the vision of the silent desert under a canopy of stars unbelievably bright would remain always. When a desert veteran thinks of sunrise, he will remember the ethereal beauty of the cold, unearthly clarity of the starlight as it was warmed and suffused by the palest peach, the delicate rose, the richer gold of the rising sun. When he thinks of shade, he will remember the joy of the unexpected oasis. When he yearns for space he will in memory stand at dawn, before the haze of the day, and gaze over the limitless desert which was once all torment, thirst, hatred and blood.
Not for nothing had these men come ten thousand miles from their homeland in the new world to play their part in restoring a balance in the old.