Operation Capri

This was the Axis counter-offensive designed to retake Medenine in south-eastern Tunisia and so halt the westward advance of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army to link with Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s Allied 1st Army in Tunisia, thus paving the way for a resurgence of Axis fortunes in North Africa (6/10 March 1943).

It was for ‘Capri’ that Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, commanding Heeresgruppe ‘Afrika’, broke off the ‘Morgenluft’ offensive of Maresciallo d’Italia Giovanni Messe’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee, leaving Generale di Divisione Conte Carlo Calvi di Bergolo’s Italian 131st Division corazzata ‘Centauro’ to deal with Lieutenant General Lloyd R. Fredendall’s US II Corps in the Kasserine Pass area as Rommel moved to the south-east with Generalleutnant Friedrich Freiherr von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Hans-Georg Hildebrandt’s 21st Panzerdivision to support the forces facing the 8th Army.

The ‘Capri’ plan called for the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee to pin the 8th Army frontally while a German armoured force gathered in the Matmâta hills to the south-west before punching forward to Medenine as the first step of a drive to the coast at Gabès. This armoured force comprised von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Willibald Borowietz’s 15th Panzerdivision and Hildebrandt’s 21st Panzerdivision supported by Generalmajor Fritz Krause’s (from 13 March Generalmajor Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein’s) 164th leichte Afrikadivision, a force that was formidable on paper but was in reality two-thirds under strength as it included a mere 141 tanks. Air support was provided by 160 aircraft including 60 fighters and 20 dive-bombers.

Rommel planned that the 15th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision should advance in the centre against Brigadier L. G. Whistler’s 131st Lorried Brigade and Brigadier J. A. Gascoigne’s 201st Guards Motor Brigade of Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division (with Brigadier C. B. C. Harvey’s 8th Armoured Brigade and Brigadier G. W. Richards’s 22nd Armoured Brigade in reserve), the 10th Panzerdivision on the right against Brigadier H. Kippenberger’s New Zealand 5th Brigade of Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division (with Brigadier J. C. Currie’s British 4th Armoured Brigade and Brigadier W. G. Gentry’s New Zealand 6th Brigade in reserve), and Generalleutnant Theodor Graf von Sponeck’s 90th Afrikadivision and Generale di Divisione Gavino Pizzolato’s Italian 80th Divisione aviotrasportabile ‘La Spezia’ on the left against Brigadier J. E. Stirling’s 154th Brigade of Major General D. N. Wimberley’s 51st Division.

Fully on the alert with regard to Rommel’s intention and strength as a result of specific ‘Ultra’ intelligence, these formations and units of Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s XXX Corps were in strong defensive positions behind minefields and anti-tank ditches, with some 350 25-pdr gun/howitzers and 460 anti-tank guns, including a few of the new and very potent 17-pdr weapons, well sited in divisional or corps strength to tackle any German advance.

At about 06.00 on 6 March, under cover of fog, the German forces attacked the left flank of the British and New Zealand line at Medenine with three Panzer divisions. The German infantry probed the entire front, and then the German armour led the main attack, closely followed by motorised infantry. The artillery regiments of the British and New Zealand divisions held their fire until the tanks were almost on the anti-tank guns, whereupon the 25-pdr gun/howitzers opened fire on the infantry, leaving the tanks isolated without infantry support. At 08.30, a group of 10 PzKpfw III medium tanks, which was advancing on Tadjera Kbir, were caught completely by surprise when two 6-pdr anti-tank guns and mortars opened fire on it, and half of the tanks were quickly destroyed. The Germans were beaten off and withdrew.

Between 09.00 and 10.00, further British and New Zealand artillery fire dispersed German troop concentrations.

Another German force attempted to advance along the road from Foum Tatahouine to Medenine, but was easily contained by the British forces.

During the afternoon, yet more British and New Zealand artillery fire, heavy as well as accurate, disrupted another German effort to concentrate effective strength, in particular a large group of 1,000 infantry supported by armour, just short of Tadjera Kbir. The artillery included a troop of captured German 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns.

‘Capri’ had thus been defeated with the loss of 52 German tanks and about 635 men. Luftwaffe attempts to support the attacks had been completely ineffectual.

During the following night, patrols were sent out to discover the likelihood of renewed attacks, but reported no German activity, and it was by this time clear that with so great a proportion of its tank strength destroyed, the Germans in all probability lacked the capability to attack. The movement of vehicles was heard, but this indicated a retreat rather than any attempt to regroup and launch a fresh attack.

There were minor actions on 7/8 March as the British and New Zealand forces maintained the pressure on the rearguards of the German formations as they withdrew to the Mareth Line and Gabès. Allied efforts to force further action on the somewhat disorganised Germans were defeated by the weather and the speed of the withdrawal. The battle was over by 10 March, although some high ground was still occupied by the Germans and sporadic long-range artillery fire continued.

Shortly after this, Rommel left Africa for the last time, being succeeded by Generaloberst Jürgen von Arnim at the head of Heeresgruppe ‘Afrika’, and the British prepared to launch their ‘Canter’ (ii) operation to breach the Mareth Line defences.

Rommel had in fact played little part in the planning or control of the battle, and this was evident in the fact that the Germans had undertaken no reconnaissance. As a result, the presence of the well concealed and carefully sited British and New Zealand artillery had not been suspected, and after the battle had started the German armour had not been able to spot the guns. The defeat had been so comprehensive that it caused the Germans to question their security, and Montgomery was in fact rebuked for not having taken greater steps to hide the source of his information, for this was lapse which could have led to the comprise of ‘Ultra’ as an Allied asset of strategic significance.