Operation Oration (i)

This was a British offensive by Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s X Corps of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army on the Axis positions at Enfidaville in southern Tunisia (19/21 April 1943).

It was on 12 April that the X Corps assumed responsibility for the Kairouan area on the right of the 8th Army’s front from Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s IX Corps, which was pulled back in preparation for its part in the final assault planned on Tunis, and at much the same time Major General R. Briggs’s 1st Armoured Division was withdrawn from the British X Corps before joining the IX Corps.

On 13 April Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division pushed in light rearguards and by early afternoon its leading units were looking at part of the ‘Enfidaville Line’. The peaks of Djebel Garci and Takrouna were dominant features, and Brigadier H. K. Kippenberger of the New Zealand 5th Brigade soon decided that the task of overcoming the former would need a full division. He decided to made an attempt on Takrouna, but the weight of the artillery fire which soon fell on his battalions suggested that the Axis forces were not to be rushed by infantry lacking strong artillery support.

On 14/15 April the X Corps closed on the Enfidaville positions, while Général de Corps d’Armée Marie Louis Koëltz’s French XIX Corps was still skirmishing at the Djebel Sefsouf, some distance to the west.

Montgomery decided that the X Corps must break into the Enfidaville position on 20 April and then advance to Bou Ficha. The 8th Army estimated that about eight German battalions, and many more Italian battalions, the latter of indifferent fighting quality, faced the X Corps, which should therefore be able to break through and be on the way to Cape Bon by 23 April. Horrocks was not as confident about the weakness of the Axis forces, but was not without hope as he felt that the Axis forces’ morale must be very low. Horrocks also thought that there was no alternative. At Enfidaville the 8th Army was facing terrain of a nature new to most of its men, for this was a mountainous area, 20 to 30 miles (32 to 48 km) deep, and accommodating only one good south/north route. This route began in a funnel, never more than 7,000 yards (6400 m) wide, through which extended the coastal road to Bou Ficha and Hammamet, where it branched right to Cape Bon and left to Hammam Lif and Tunis. Enfidaville lies on the southern edge of this region in a rough, cultivated plain, over which loomed Takrouna, a rock outcrop 500 ft (150 m) high, and its western neighbour the Djebel Garci. Some 1,000 ft (305 m) high, the Djebel Garci is irregularly shaped and extremely formidable. Some 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north of it lies the Djebel Mdeker, somewhat larger and equally forbidding. To the east of the Djebel Mdeker the jagged ridges of the Djebel Mengoub and Djebel Tebaga prolong this natural obstacle toward Sebkra Kralifa and the sea. Northward other barriers are similar.

Generale d’Armata Giovanni Messe’s Axis 1st Army held positions in depth with their forward edge on the line running from Sebkra Kralifa to the west in the direction of Takrouna and the Djebel Garci and farther to the west. Here Messe had alternated Italian and German units, although from east to west the divisions in the first line were Generalleutnant Theodor Graf von Sponeck’s 90th Afrikadivision, Generale di Divisione Nino Sozzani’s 136th Divisione corazzata ‘Giovanni Fascisti’, Generale di Divisione Francesco La Ferla’s 101st Divisione motorizzata ‘Trieste’, Generale di Divisione Giuseppe Falugi’s 16th Divisione ‘Pistoia’ (in the process of absorbing the remnants of Generale di Divisione Conte Giorgio Calvi di Bergolo’s 131st Divisione corazzata ‘Centauro’), Generalmajor Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein’s 164th leichte Afrikadivision, and Generale di Divisione Gavino Pizzolato’s 80th Divisione aviotrasportabile ‘La Spezia’; in reserve was Generalmajor Willibald Borowietz’s 15th Panzerdivision.

Takrouna was held at first by the 1/66th Regiment of the 101st Divisione motorizzata and the Djebel Garci by the 16th Divisione with, on its right and rear, the 164th leichte Afrikadivision defending the hills and passes around Saouaf.

On 14 April there were 83 German and approximately 177 Italian pieces of artillery in Messe’s 1st Army, and 44 German guns in the Deutsches Afrikakorps, which on 25 April had about 60 Italian guns. The 15th Panzerdivision had four tanks fit for battle, and 21 under repair, and the Axis formations each had a half-issue of ammunition and fuel for 31 miles (50 km), except for the 15th Panzerdivision, which had enough for 62 miles (100 km).

By 18 April the headquarters of the X Corps knew that the Axis defence was strong. Horrocks’s plan was to prepare for an advance to Bou Ficha. Major General S. C. Kirkman’s British 50th Division was to hold and patrol the eastern sector, the New Zealand 2nd Division was to capture Takrouna and exploit to the north, Major General F. I. S. Tuker’s Indian 4th Division was to capture the Djebel Garci and the Djebel Biada, another mountain to the north-east of the Djebel Garci, and Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s British 7th Armoured Division was to protect the western flank.

The main feature of the next phase of the plan was for the Indian 4th Division to capture the Djebel Mdeker and then climb and fight for 12 miles (19 km) in a north-easterly direction until it emerged above the coast road at Sebkra Kralifa. Meanwhile the New Zealand 2nd Division would continue its advance.

The New Zealand 2nd and Indian 4th Divisions each had only two brigades, and therefore six infantry battalions apiece instead of the more normal nine. Moreover, with the exception of a few commandeered animals, their transport and artillery were mechanised. Both formations were in fact so unsuitably equipped for a long mountain battle that the plan created by Horrocks was too bold to be practical.

By this time Air Vice Marshal H. Broadhurst’s Western Desert Air Force, tasked with air support of the ground undertaking, was becoming established on some of the airfields and landing grounds from which the Axis air forces had been evicted. The Western Desert Air Force could deploy eight squadrons of day bombers, 22 squadrons of fighters and fighter-bombers, and the equivalent of four squadrons of reconnaissance aircraft.

Both New Zealand brigades attacked at 23.00 on 19 April. Brigadier W. G. Genetry’s New Zealand 6th Brigade, on the right, easily seized its objectives, which were features to the north-east of Takrouna. The objectives of Kippenberger’s New Zealand 5th Brigade included a small hill just to the east of Takrouna and Takrouna itself. The 28th (Maori) Battalion, on the right, had a hard task of it to gain a precarious foothold on the small hill. Most of the 21st Battalion, on the left, penetrated deeply to the west of Takrouna, but its foothold too was uncertain and the knoll itself was not taken. Meanwhile the 23rd Battalion had been called from reserve into the battle, and suffered heavy casualties, especially in officers. It pressed forward, though, passing below Takrouna on the east, though one forward company had only 20 unwounded men and the other just 17. At length the 23rd and 28th Battalions joined forces.

At daybreak Sergeant Rogers and 11 men of the 28th Battalion, reinforced by Sergeant W. J. Smith of the 23rd Battalion, who had temporarily lost touch with his own unit, assaulted Takrouna. Somehow this party reached the top of the knoll, and began to engage the Axis troops, who were mostly in a little village just below it. A few reinforcements and artillery observers rushed up to Rogers and there the New Zealanders stayed in spite of continual shelling and a counterattack.

On 20 April both brigades were committed and holding fast, but as there were no reserves they could not change their holds or improve them.

The Indian 4th Division began its attack at 21.30 on 19 April, earlier than the New Zealanders to allow for the Indian units’ very difficult approach. Brigadier D. R. E. R. Bateman’s Indian 5th Brigade was to capture the Djebel Garci, while Brigadier O. de T. Lovett’s Indian 7th Brigade was to help if necessary, and then to capture the Djebel Mdeker. The 1/4th Essex broke the outposts and its men fought their way up to their objective. Then the 4/6th Rajputana Rifles went through and a furious mêlée began, the 1/9th Gurkha Rifles being sent in. Toward 04.00 the Axis units counterattacked and were met with great determination, and at daybreak another Axis counterattack was driven back. By 12.00 it was clear that the Indian 5th Brigade was holding, but on only a fraction of the Djebel Garci, and Tuker therefore brought forward the Indian 7th Brigade and soon four of his six battalions were committed while his division’s task, taken as a whole, had barely begun. Yet there seemed to be no way of continuing it except by holding and breaking counterattacks. This is what happened, and in it the very powerful artillery (eight field and three medium regiments under the division’s control or at call) hammered the Axis forces.

On 21 April the New Zealand 2nd Division cleared Takrouna, but the balance sheet for it and the Indian 4th Division was unsatisfactory. Both divisions had fought grimly in a fine feat of arms, but had suffered heavy losses for the seizure of little ground.

Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, commanding the German-Italian 5th Panzerarmee, interpreted the battle as the first stage of the Allies’ final offensive in Tunisia, and expected further attacks, and the intelligence staff of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, appreciated that the Allies were now able to attack in any sector at any time.