Operation Battle of Wadi Akarit

The 'Battle of Wadi Akarit', which was known to the Allies by the codename 'Scorpio' (i), was an Allied offensive to dislodge Axis forces from positions along the Wadi Akarit in Tunisia during the 'Tunisia Campaign' (6/7 April 1943).

The Gabs 'gap' in south-eastern Tunisia, lying to the north of Gabs and El Hamma, is a passage between the sea and impassable salt marshes. Major General D. N. Wimberley’s British 51st Division breached the defences to create and hold a bridgehead, allowing the passage of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army to roll up the Axis defences. After several determined counterattacks, the Axis forces withdrew and the 8th Army pursued to the north in the direction of Tunis until reaching the Axis defensive positions at Enfidaville.

After the 'Ligne Mareth' in southern Tunisia had been outflanked by the 8th Army in 'Supercharge II', through the Tebaga 'gap', the Axis forces had withdrawn to the Wadi Akarit. This position had been identified long before by Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel as an excellent defensive position with secure flanks and a short maritime supply route to Sicily. Rommel had wanted to withdraw to this position after the '2nd Battle of El Alamein', as it was the best place to resist the 8th Army and prolong the Axis presence in Africa. With the British held at Wadi Akarit, all available troops in Tunisia could repulse Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s 1st Army (nominally British but with major US and French units under command) to the west, before dealing a similar blow to Montgomery. The Gabs 'gap' was the last readily defensible position before the 8th Army reached Sfax and formed a continuous front with the 1st Army advancing from the west.

Wadi Akarit lies on an east/west line from the Mediterranean Sea in the east and the impassable salt marshes at Sebkret el Hamma (the eastern end of the Chott el Djerid) to the west. Thus there were no flanks that could be turned as there had been at the Tebaga 'gap', and no opportunity to disperse the defenders by attacking at several points as at the '2nd Battle of El Alamein', so a frontal attack on prepared defences was unavoidable. From the coast, the defence line followed the Wadi Akarit for 5 miles (8 km), which was impassable to armour, and then a wider section of dry wadi, backed by a long hill, the Djebel er Roumana, the last of a line of high ground that forms the northern boundary of the Chott. The approaches to Djebel er Roumana were obstructed by an anti-tank ditch and there were more defence works to the west, although the broken ground was also a significant obstacle.

The Allies' leading units had advanced through Oudref and reached the Wadi Akarit on 30 March, but then limited their activity to patrols and the probing of the Axis defences. Three divisions of Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s British XXX Corps were chosen for the initial assault: Wimberley’s 51st Division on the right, Major General S. C. Kirkman’s British 50th Division in the centre and Major General F. I. S. Tuker’s Indian 4th Division on the left. In the week before the battle, British and US bombers began continuous attacks on the defenders.

Instead of attacking between the Jebel Fatnassa, a steep 800-ft (245-m) hill and the junction with the 50th Division, Tuker persuaded Montgomery to attack the Jebel Fatnassa using infantry trained in mountain warfare. The Jebel Fatnassa was defended by Generale d’Armata Giovanni Messe’s 1a Armata, in the form of Generale di Corpo d’Armata Enea Navarini’s Italian XXI Corpo d’Armata with troops of Generale di Divisione Gavino Pizzolato’s 80a Divisione fanteria 'La Spezia', Generale di Brigata Francesco la Ferla’s 101a Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste' and Generalmajor Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein’s German 164th leichte Afrikadivision. The Fatanassa feature was taken and the 4th/6th Rajputana Rifles advanced as far as the plain some 5 miles (8 km) behind the hills, in the process taking some 2,000 prisoners. The Indian 4th Division was not able to exploit the success farther as Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s British X Corps was delayed by German counterattacks.

The 50th Division met determined resistance from Italian marines, well dug in at the Wadi Akarit and plentifully supplied with automatic weapons and grenades, but the British pressed forward despite high casualties among the 6/Green Howards: two senior officers, six senior non-commissioned and junior officers, and 118 other ranks were killed. The Green Howards took Point 85 and held it against counterattacks. The 1/4th Essex Regiment of the Indian 4th Division made contact with the 50th Division on the right flank and aided it in crossing an anti-tank ditch.

The 51st Division attacked with Brigadier G. Murray’s 152nd Brigade and seized the top of the Djebel Roumana, then made a gap through the minefield and the anti tank ditch on the left flank. Brigadier D. A. H. Graham’s 153rd Brigade and Brigadier J. E. Stirling’s 154th Brigade attacked the coastal defences and took 2,000 prisoners. One battalion of the 101a Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste' was destroyed and prisoners were taken from the Generalleutnant Theodor Graf von Sponeck’s 90th Afrikadivision, one of whose regiments counterattacked at 09.00 and caused a short delay before being repulsed.

Messe ordered von Liebenstein’s 164th leichte Afrikadivision to move from its position in the western hills to the centre, and in the afternoon sent Generalleutnant Willibald Borowitz’s 15th Panzerdivision to join the 90th Afrikadivision to counterattack and retake the positions lost by the 101a Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste' to the 51st Division. The 15th Panzerdivision arrived and counterattacked just before the British tried to exploit their success. (Generalleutnant Friedrich Freiherr von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Heinrich-Hermann von Hlsen’s 21st Panzerdivision, which had been opposite Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall’s US II Corps during the 'Battle of El Guettar', were also moved toward the British attack.)

The Germans made three counterattacks during the afternoon, mainly against the 51st Division on the Djebel Roumana and more specifically the positions held by the 7/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who repulsed the attacks. As night fell, the Axis position had become untenable, the defenders having been severely depleted. Messe reported the situation to von Arnim, and in Rome Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber 'Sd', and the Italian high command urged the army group commander to continue the battle, but von Arnim ordered a retreat to the Enfidaville position, about 150 miles (240 km) to the north.

The New Zealand 2nd Division and British 1st Armoured Division began a pursuit across the coastal plain, whose conditions steadily changed from semi-desert to olive groves offering opportunities for ambush. There was little resistance until the opposing forces were close to Enfidaville, and about 6,000 prisoners were taken, sometimes surprised to see Allied troops beyond the supposed front line and large amounts of matriel, the latter including captured US supplies, were taken.

At dawn on 7 April, it was found that the Axis forces had quietly withdrawn. The 15th Panzerdivision had suffered many losses, the 164th leichte Afrikadivision had lost most of its weapons and vehicles, and at least three Italian divisions had to be amalgamated into one unit: the 80a Divisione fanteria 'La Spezia' had been reduced to 1.5 infantry companies, the 101a Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste' to three weak battalions and the 16a Divisione motorizzata 'Pistoia' and the 90th Afrikadivision had many casualties. The strength of the 1a Armata had been 106,000 men, of whom 7,000 had been taken prisoner. The Eighth Army had suffered 1,289 casualties and lost 32 tanks.

In the 'Battle of El Guettar', the US II Corps' operation to cut off Axis forces during the 'Battle of Wadi Akarit' had been held up, but the retirement from Wadi Akarit forced the Italians to withdraw. On 7 April, the American forces raced down the road linking El Guettar and Gabs, where it met advanced troops of the 8th Army at 17.00. General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, commander-in-chief of the Allied 15th Army Group, moved the US II Corps to the north as the 8th Army was better prepared for the final offensive. The 8th Army’s 'Largesse' pursuit covered 140 miles (230 km) in the area to the north of Wadi Akarit, and Sfax and Sousse were both captured. The Axis troops fell back to defensible positions to the north and west of Enfidaville, 25 miles (40 km) south of Cape Bon. Here the mountains descend to the sea, with a narrow passage to Hammamet. The area was held until the Axis forces' final surrender in North Africa, and 8th Army formations and units were moved toward Medjez el Bab opposite Tunis, for the 'Vulcan' final operations of the 'Tunisian Campaign'.