This was the British breakthrough of the Axis positions along the Mareth Line by General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army (20/27 March 1943).
The comparative success of the ‘Frühlingswind’ and ‘Morgenluft’ (i) operations in February 1943 had the effect of persuading Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel that his Axis forces had contained, if only on a temporary basis, the threat of Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s Allied 1st Army from the west following its 'Torch' Landings, and therefore that the primary threat to the Axis powers’ newly established 'Braun' (ii) lodgement in Tunisia, a lodgement which was of useful size on its north/south axis but dangerously narrow on its east/west axis, now came from the 8th Army in the south. So Rommel shifted Generalleutnant Willibald Borowitz’s 15th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Heinrich-Hermann von Hülsen’s 21st Panzerdivision from Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzerarmee to General Giovanni Messe’s Axis 1st Army, which was to halt the advance of the 8th Army at Medenine in ‘Capri’: this small-scale offensive was launched and defeated on 6 March, however.
There followed a major revision of the Axis command in Tunisia when Rommel was recalled on 9 March: von Arnim succeeded to the command of Heeresgruppe ‘Afrika’, the 5th Panzerarmee was taken over by General Gustav von Vaerst, and Messe received a capable and energetic German chief-of-staff in the form of Generalmajor Fritz Bayerlein.
The Tunisian lodgement’s importance to the Axis cause even at this late stage of the war in North Africa is attested by the fact that with the approval of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, flew to Tunisia to confer with the senior Axis commanders and passed on the order that there was to be no further retreat so that the Axis lodgement was maintained in eastern Tunisia between Cape Serrat in the north and Mareth in the south. To this end von Arnim’s command was strengthened to 16 divisions by the delivery of Generalmajor Paul Conrath’s Division ‘General Göring’, Generalmajor Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel’s Division ‘von Manteuffel’ and Generalleutnant Kurt Thomas’s 999th leichte Afrikadivision, this last being a formation of military prisoners being given a final opportunity to rehabilitate themselves through combat.
But though the strength of the Axis was impressive in terms of the number of formations it controlled, its manpower and weapon strengths were not as impressive, and many of the Axis formations included units which were morally and physically exhausted. Moreover, the German and Italian staffs were frequently at loggerheads with each other, and the Italians could not maintain anything like a significant delivery of equipment, supplies, fuel and other necessities to Heeresgruppe ‘Afrika’ because of the depredations of the British air and naval forces based in Malta, now supplemented by Allied units from bases in North-West Africa and the Western Desert. At the beginning of 1943 the Italians had been able to draw on a total of some 300,000 tons of shipping for use on the North Africa route, but of this total some 87,800 tons had been sunk in January and 69,500 tons in February, reducing the available tonnage by just over 52.5%.
Meanwhile the Axis forces were faced with the threat of two powerful Allied armies whose efforts were co-ordinated, under the overall command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Commander-in-Chief Allied Force Headquarters in North Africa, by General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander’s 18th Army Group. On 14 March Alexander issued instructions to his command to the effect that the Allied 1st Army was to maintain pressure against the 5th Panzerarmee in the north with Général de Corps d’Armée Marie Louis Koëltz’s French XIX Corps, while Alexander took Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US II Corps under army group command to harass the Axis lines of communication (in the centre of the sector, just to the north of Gabès) by advancing on Maknassy and Gabès, and the 8th Army broke through the Mareth Line defences in the south and drove on Gabès.
With the Axis forces compressed into a small lodgement in central and northern Tunisia, the Allied forces would then be in the position to launch a concentric offensive to crush them by 15 May at the latest so that the schedule laid down at the ‘Symbol’ conference at Casablanca for ‘Husky’ (i) could be ensured.
The initial phase of the retreat by Rommel’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee or, as it was known to the Italians, the Armata Corazzata Italo-Tedesca, from its defeat in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein had lasted from 5 November 1942 to 15 February 1943 as the 8th Army moved to the west in 'Guillotine' (ii), and on 8 November US and British forces had landed in Morocco and Algeria in 'Torch'. The Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee had managed to evade British limited outflanking moves as it retreated round the northward bulge of Cyrenaica between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jebel Akhdar, but traffic congestion, fuel shortages, adverse weather and the effects of Allied air attacks reduced the Axis retreat to some 6 to 7 miles (9.67 to 11.25 km) per day. Nonetheless, the Comando Supremo in Rome and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht in Berlin had developed an optimistic view of the situation, and the Comando Supremo chose the position just to the west of Mersa el Brega at El Agheila as the retreat’s stopping point. This was a weak position as it had a frontage of 110 miles (175 km), there were intervals of up to 5 miles (8 km) between strongpoints, which was too far to allow mutual support, and the Axis forces had only 30,000 mines for the improvement of the defences.
When the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee reached this position, its primary formation, General Gustav Fehn’s Deutsches Afrikakorps, had only 5,000 men, 35 tanks, 16 armoured cars, 12 anti-tank guns and 12 field howitzers, and was receiving only 50 of the 400 tons of supplies it needed each day.
Rommel had in fact wished to pull back to Wadi Akarit in the Gabès area, more than 560 miles (900 km) farther to the west, where his non-motorised troops could defend the narrow gap between the Mediterranean and the Chott Djerid, and his tanks and motorised infantry would join the 5th Panzerarmee farther to the north, drive the 1st Army back from Tunisia into Algeria, then swiftly return to drive back the 8th Army in preparation to embarkation for Europe. At a meeting with Adolf Hitler on 28 November, Rommel discussed the proposal but received only a promise of an increased delivery of supplies.
On the night of 11/12 December, the British attacked the Axis forces' position at El Agheila, and during the evening of the next day the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee resumed its trek to the west and, despite its desperately low fuel stocks, managed to evade another outflanking move by the 8th Army. The Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee took up its next defensive position, at Buerat, on 29 December but this was a poor position completely open to an outflanking manoeuvre and vulnerable to being cut off by an attack on Gabès by the 1st Army from southern Tunisia. The German and Italian supply situation had improved slightly with the delivery of just over 150 tons per day, and 95% of the fuel being used to distribute supplies or to facilitate the withdrawals.
Even so, the Long Range Desert Group continued to attack the Axis lines of communication, and hundreds of trucks were stranded along roads for lack of fuel even as the 8th Army built its stocks of fuel and ammunition for its next attack. On 13 January, the infantry of Generalmajor Heinrich-Hermann von Hülsen’s 21st Panzerdivision was despatched to the 5th Panzerarmee to guard against the loss of Gabès and on 15 January, in 'Fire Eater', the 8th Army attacked with an armoured advantage of 450 tanks to 36 German and 57 Italian tanks; the result was a foregone conclusion, and in the evening Rommel ordered another withdrawal. The combination of inadequate fuel and fears about the Allied threat to Gabès meant that the retreat passed to the west of the defence line between Tarhuna and Homs, and the British occupied Tripoli, the Libyan capital, on 23 January. By this time the retreat of the Axis forces from El Alamein had covered 1,400 miles (2255 km).
On 13 February the last Axis troops quit Libya as they passed into Tunisia, and on 15 February the rearguard reached the Mareth Line, some 80 miles (130 km) inside Tunisia. The Comando Supremo intended that the line would be held indefinitely, but Rommel considered it to be vulnerable to an outflanking move, unlike the Wadi Akarit position another 40 miles (65 km) to the Mareth Line’s rear.
The opportunities for manoeuvre warfare in southern Tunisia, which is characterised by a broken terrain of difficult rocky ridge lines and desert, were strictly limited. In the country outside the angle in which the south and west coasts of the Gulf of Gabès meet, the semi-arid coastal plain, which is covered with scrub, extends inland to the Matmata hills, which extend along an essentially north/south axis. Across the plain, in an approximately south-west/north-east alignment, was the Mareth Line. In the north, the hills and line of forts ended at the Tebaga gap, which is a low pass between the Matmata hills and the Djebel Tebaga, this latter yet another line of high ground to the west of the gap and running east/west. To the north and west of this feature is the Chott el Djeridsalt lake, and to the west of the Matmata hills are the dry Jebel Dahar country and then the impassable sand of the Grand Erg Oriental. Gabès lies on the coast, where the plain meets the route from the Tebaga gap. To the north of Gabès, the road to Sfax passes between the sea and the Chotts, and in 1943 was the only route to the north available to the 8th Army, and blocked by the Mareth Line.
This defensive line followed the line of Wadi Zigzaou, a natural tank obstacle with steep banks rising to 70 ft (21 m). The north-western side had been fortified by the French between the world wars and subsequently reinforced. The wadi crosses the coastal plain inland from Zarat to Toujane and then into the Matmata hills beyond. In 1938 the French had decided that the Jebel Dahar was impassable to motor transport, and therefore had not extended the Mareth Line, but by 1943 motor vehicles had much better performance.
The British had an advantage inasmuch as Général d’Armée Georges Catroux, the designer and garrison commander of the Mareth Line in the 1930s, was available in Algiers to provide information and advice for the attack. Now highly experienced in desert mobility, the British considered that an outflanking move through the Jebel Dahar area was practicable. The Axis forces readied themselves along the Mareth Line even though Rommel preferred the Gabès gap as a better defensive position.
Long before it reached Tripoli, the 8th Army had given considerable thought to the best way in which to fight the inevitable battle for the Mareth Line, and patrols of the Long Range Desert Group had been sent to survey the land to the south of the Matmata hills. Despite the fact that both local maps and reports combined to aver that the ground was impossible for tanks and trucks, the Long Range Desert Group found a route inland to the south and through the southern part of the hills to the Tebaga gap, between the Chott el Fejaj salt marsh and the hills.
By this time Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division had probed forward from Tripoli, while Major General D. N. Wimberley’s 51st Division and Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division rested at the port. The heavy winter rains turned the ground into swampland until 15 February, and the 7th Armoured Division and 51st Division then moved forward and captured airfields at Medenine on 17 February. On the following day, there arrived the Fighting French Flying Column, which had been with the 8th Army right the way from El Alamein, and Général de Division Philippe François Marie Jacques Leclerc de Hauteclocque’s Free French ‘L’ Force, which had advanced across the Sand Sea from Lake Chad to join the 8th Army. The XXX Corps brought forward from Tripoli the New Zealand 2nd Division, which had 'L' Force, Brigadier C. B. C. Harvey’s 8th Armoured Brigade and Brigadier J. A. Gascoigne’s 201st Guards Motor Brigade under command.
At this time the Allied codebreakers of the Government Code and Cipher School, located at Bletchley Park in England, were reading much of the German signal traffic encoded with the Enigma machine, and the 'Ultra' intelligence which resulted now indicated on 25 February that Rommel had ordered an end to the Axis attacks against the 1st Army in the Battle of the Kasserine Pass (19/24 February). Three days later decrypted signals showed that Rommel had ordered the Axis 1st Army to undertake a reconnaissance in preparation for an offensive against the 8th Army by 4 March, and a fuel return of 1 March revealed that the Axis forces had petrol sufficient for a three-day operation.
On 26 February, the 8th Army had only about one division at Medenine, and most of its armour was still well to the rear at Benghazi with the X Corps. So it expected that an attack on the Mareth Line could not be ready before 20 March. Montgomery thought that the XXX Corps at Medenine could not withstand an attack before 7 March, so over a three-day period reinforcements were rushed forward: by 4 March 400 tanks, 350 field guns and 470 anti-tank guns had arrived. The RAF had also increased the number of aircraft it had in the area to a figure twice that of the Axis air forces.
At 05.36 on 6 March, Montgomery received 'Ultra' intelligence revealing the axis of the imminent Axis 'Capri' offensive and its start time of 06.00.
As noted above, Messe’s Axis 1st Army held the Mareth Line with Generalleutnant Theodor Graf von Sponeck’s 90th Afrikadivision, Generalmajor Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein’s 164th leichte Afrikadivision, Generalleutnant Friedrich Freiherr von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision, Borowitz’s 15th Panzerdivision and von Hülsen’s 21st Panzerdivision of the Deutsches Afrikakorps with about 200 tanks, and Generale di Divisione Gavino Pizzolato’s 80th Divisione aviotrasportabile ‘La Spezia’. On a date early in March, after debate with Rommel and the divisional commanders, Messe set the objective of the 'Capri' attack as the envelopment and destruction of the British forces between the Mareth Line and Medenine. The two columns involved were to be, firstly, a group of the Deutsches Afrikakorps, which was now commanded by Generalleutnant Hans Cramer, with the three Panzer divisions, the 3rd Aufklärungsabteilung and 33rd Aufklärungsabteilung, one battalion of the 164th leichte Afrikadivision, one parachute battalion, seven field artillery batteries and two anti-aircraft battalions; and secondly, Generalleutnant Theodor Graf von Sponeck’s Kampfgruppe 'Bari' with two battalions of the 200th Panzergrenadierregiment, two battalions of the 361st Panzergrenadierregiment, battle groups of Pizzolato’s 80th Divisione and Generale di Divisione Francesco La Ferla’s 101st Divisione motorizzata ‘Trieste’ each with two battalions, one battery of German field guns and several Nebelwerfer artillery rocket launchers, seven Italian batteries of field artillery, and part of three batteries of anti-aircraft guns. Each of the German and Italian columns had attached anti-tank and engineer units.
At about 06.00 on 6 March, under cover of fog, the three Panzer divisions attacked toward Medenine at the start of 'Capri'. Warned of the German attack by 'Ultra' intelligence, Montgomery had had established strong defensive positions. The 8th Army had a very considerable numerical superiority in men and matériel, the latter including many concealed batteries of anti-tank guns. These guns included a few early examples of the new and powerful 17-pdr gun. After Axis infantry had probed the British front, tanks spearheaded the attack with motorised infantry immediately behind them.
The British and New Zealand artillery held their fire until the tanks were almost on the anti-tank guns, and then the British 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 advancing on Tadjera Kbir was surprised by two 6-pdr anti-tank guns and a deluge of mortar fire, the tank group losing half of its number before the survivors withdrew.
Between 09.00 and 10.00, artillery fire broke up the Axis troop concentrations. Another German force attempted to advance along the road linking Foum Tatahouine and Medenine, but was driven back. During the afternoon, heavy and accurate artillery fire, including that of captured German 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, disrupted all German efforts to concentrate their troops, in particular a large group of 1,000 tank-supported infantry just in front of Tadjera Kbir. The Luftwaffe made a major support effort despite a mist, which prevented flight operations by the aircraft of Air Vice Marshal H. Broadhurst’s Desert Air Force, but the German warplanes were unsuccessful in their attacks on British infantry, and their attempts to dive-bomb artillery positions were thwarted by effective anti-aircraft fire. Thus 'Capri' was defeated with the German loss of some 44 to 56 tanks, while the British casualties were very small.
During the night, the British despatched patrols, which established that more than 40 German tanks had been destroyed. Montgomery quickly appreciated that this meant that the Germans now probably lacked the strength to renew the offensive, and while the sounds of Axis vehicle movements might have suggested an attack, what was in fact taking place was a withdrawal.
There were rearguard actions on 7 and 8 March as the Axis forces withdrew to the Mareth Line and Gabès, but British attempts to pursue were stymied by adverse weather and the speed of the Axis withdrawal. The action at Medenine was over by 10 March, although Axis units still held some of the higher ground and there were sporadic long-range artillery engagements.
On 10 March, Rommel departed Africa for the last time, leaving von Arnim in command of what was now the Heeresgruppe 'Afrika' or, as it was known to the Italians, the Gruppo d’Armata 'Africa'. Rommel had played little part in the planning or control of the 'Capri' battle, in which the Axis forces had attempted no realistic reconnaissance of the British positions, especially those of the British artillery, which was well sited and camouflaged, and therefore almost impossible for the Axis armour to spot. The defeat had been so complete, moreover, that it led the Germans to question the effectiveness of their security measures. On the other side of the front, however, Montgomery was rebuked for not having taken greater steps to hide the source of his information.
This set the scene for ‘Pugilist-Gallop’, the 8th Army’s assault on the Mareth Line, which had been built before the war by the French to defeat any Italian attack from Libya, and was sited on a natural bottleneck between the Wadi Zeand the Wadi Zigzaou at the point at which the 8th Army hoped to wheel to the north into southern Tunisia round the Gulf of Gabès. Here the coastal strip is only some 22 miles (35 km) wide, bounded at its north-eastern end by the Sebkra Oum ez Zessar marshes on the sea and at its south-western end by the Matmata hills, and thus an ideal spot for an Axis mine-protected defence line just in front of the town of Mareth.
The Axis engineers worked with great diligence and skill to effect a major improvement of the original French frontier defences between French Tunisia and Italian Libya, and the Mareth Line thus consisted of some 100,000 anti-tank and 70,000 anti-personnel mines laid in two main belts, one just behind the Wadi Zeand the other just forward of the Wadi Zigzaou. These belts were joined by subsidiary minefields, and the whole position was liberally strewn with barbed wire and mutually supporting pillbox complexes.
The main features of the basic line were known to the British from information supplied by Free French officers in the Allied forces, and of its upgraded form from extensive air reconnaissance of the manner in which the Axis forces had developed the basic French original.
The Axis static defences were entrusted to two Italian corps. Nearer the coast was General di Corpo d’Armata Taddeo Orlando’s XX Corps (Generale di Divisione Nino Sozzani’s 136th Divisione corazzata ‘Giovanni Fascisti’ with five battalions, La Ferla’s 101st Divisione motorizzata ‘Trieste’ with six battalions, von Sponeck’s 90th Afrikadivision with six battalions, and Pizzolato’s 80th Divisione aviotrasportabile ‘La Spezia’ with seven battalions). Nearer the Matmata hills was Generale di Corpo d’Armata Paulo Berardi’s XXI Corps (Generale di Divisione Giuseppe Falugi’s 16th Division motorizzata ‘Pistoia’ with five battalions and von Liebenstein’s 164th leichte Afrikadivision with four battalions).
These essentially static formations were covered to the rear by Borowitz’s 15th Panzerdivision located some 5 miles (8 km) to the north-west of Mareth but with only 32 serviceable tanks, von Broich’s 10th Panzerdivision to the south-west of Sousse, and von Hülsen’s 21st Panzerdivision to the south-west of Gabès. Between them, the 10th Panzerdivision and 15th Panzerdivision had a total of 110 serviceable tanks, and protection for the vulnerable Tebaga gap (to the east of the Chott el Fejej salt pans, the south of Gabès, the west-south-west of Mareth and the west-north-west of Medenine), which offered Allied access into the Axis rear areas, was provided by Generale di Divisione Alberto Mannerini’s Raggruppamento Sahariano (the equivalent of seven battalions).
Montgomery initially planned for the Axis static formations to be crushed in the coastal sector of the XX Corps by the ‘Canter’ offensive of Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s XXX Corps (Major General J. S. Nichols’s 50th Division, Wimberley’s 51st Division and Major General F. I. S. Tuker’s Indian 4th Division) so creating a breach through which the armour of Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s X Corps (Major General R. Briggs’s 1st Armoured Division and Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division) could drive into the Axis forces’ rear with the object of penetrating straight through to Gafsa and Sfax in preparation for a non-stop drive to Sousse and Tunis.
To cut the Axis forces’ line of retreat, Freyberg’s New Zealand Corps (Freyberg’s own New Zealand 2nd Division, Harvey’s 8th Armoured Brigade and Leclerc de Hauteclocque’s Free French ‘L’ Force) was to sweep deep round the southern flank through ‘Wilder’s Gap’ in the Matmata hills to assault the Tebaga gap defences and so break through to the coast near Gabès well to the Axis rear.
(Early in January 1943, a patrol of the Long Range Desert Group under the command of Captain N. P. Wilder had found a usable pass into the Dahar, and this was dubbed ‘Wilder’s Gap’. A later patrol, under the command of Lieutenant R. A. Tinker, had penetrated to the Tebaga gap, thereby proving the practicability of the route was practicable and demonstrating a weakness in the Axis deployment. Tinker’s incursion travelled farther to the north, as far as Gafsa in fact, and established the first overland contact with the Allied 1st Army, advancing from the west, on 2 February.)
The Axis forces suffered from an enormous quantitative disadvantage compared with the British forces, with only some 142 tanks to the latter’s 743, and this disadvantage was carried over to field artillery (447 to 692), anti-tank artillery (728 including 88-mm/3.465-in dual-role anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns to 1,033) and aircraft (123 to 755, the latter excluding the bombers Major General James H. Doolittle’s North-West African Strategic Air Force made tactically available on 20/21 March).
For its key part on the operation the New Zealand 2nd Division was strengthened as the core of the New Zealand Corps, and this was ordered to move south through the Matmata hills, via ‘Wilder’s Gap’, and thus enter into the Dahar area in a movement disguised as carefully as possible to prevent its discovery by Axis reconnaissance.
The advance of the New Zealand Corps was planned as a three-stage effort to start on 19 March: the first was a 20-mile (32-km) overnight march to the Wadi bel Krecheb, the second another overnight march of 40 miles (65 km) to a point just short of the Tebaga gap, and the the third the capture of the entrance to the Tebaga gap at first light on 21 March or as soon as possible after that . The corps was then to advance to El Hamma, overlooking the coast road just to the north of Gabès. The flank of the advance was to be protected by Leclerc de Hauteclocque’s Free French and the King’s Dragoon Guards.
An exploiting thrust by the X Corps from El Hamma to Gedes would then cut off the Axis 1st Army holding the Mareth Line positions and so provide the New Zealand Corps with the opportunity to advance on Sfax, some 80 miles (130 km) farther to the north along the coast from Gedes, and take the airfields on the western side of the town.
The planning process placed especial emphasis on the need for surprise and the ability to smash swiftly through the Axis positions. The New Zealand Corps was relatively light, being based largely on infantry, and further emphasis was laid on the use of artillery to break Axis concentrations and morale.
Considerable effort was also expended in the co-ordination of the land assault and its associated air support by fighter-bombers and bombers.
The simultaneous frontal attack by the XXX Corps on the Mareth Line would serve to divide the attention of the Axis forces and render difficult the task of planning and implementing an effective counter-attack. Moreover, Patton’s US II Corps of the Allied 1st Army, which was advancing from the west through El Guettar, would pose a major threat to the Axis lines of communication at at the same time pin possible Axis reinforcements attempting to advance from the area of Sfax.
Montgomery’s primary frontal assault was to start on 20 March, but as Freyberg’s corps had a 120-mile (195-km) approach march to the Tebaga gap, it had already departed on 18 March.
Two days before this the British had started preliminary operations against the Mareth Line defences, Gascoigne’s 201st Guards Motor Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division probing into the defences of von Sponeck’s 90th Afrikadivision to the south-east of Mareth, and Brigadier E. C. Cooke-Collis’s 69th Brigade and Brigadier D. A. H. Graham’s 153rd Brigade (of the 50th and 51st Divisions respectively) establishing a bridgehead through the Wadi Zeuss defences of the 101st Divisione motorizzata and the 136th Divisione corazzata just inland of the coastal marshes.
The offensive proper got under way at 22.30 on 20 March with a major artillery barrage, under cover of which the 50th Division secured a bridgehead over the Wadi Zigzaou. The 136th Divisione corazzata did not break, however, and soon the 50th Division was on the defensive, much hampered by the onset of torrential rain, which turned the ground into a quagmire and the Wadi Zigzaou into a torrent. By 22 March the division had only one small foothold left on the northern side of the Wadi Zigzaou after counterattacks by the 15th Panzerdivision.
By this time the New Zealand Corps was strongly engaged in the Tebaga gap and unable to break through rapidly as rapidly as had been hoped, for Messe had committed the 21st Panzerdivision supported by the 164th leichte Afrikadivision pulled out of the Mareth Line.
Thus Montgomery’s basic plan had failed at the tactical level with the loss of 952 men and 51 tanks, but the British commander now decided on a swift evolution of his basic concept to take advantage of X Corps’ armoured superiority. The weight of the infantry attack was therefore switched inland, the Indian 4th Division being directed to outflank the end of the Mareth Line in the Matmata hills and fall on Beni Zelten (28 March) with Brigadier D. R. E. R. Bateman’s Indian 5th Brigade via Ksar el Hallouf, and Brigadier O. D. T. Lovett’s Indian 7th Brigade by means of a wider sweep through the Matmata hills.
To maintain frontal pressure on the Mareth Line the 7th Armoured Division was thrown into the fray in this sector, but the key to Montgomery’s revised scheme was the despatch on 23 March of the XXX Corps’ headquarters and the 1st Armoured Division to reinforce the New Zealand Corps at the Tebaga gap.
The 1st Armoured Division grouped in the area to the south-east of the gap during the night of 25 March, and from 16.00 on 26 March supplemented the New Zealand Corps’ efforts in ‘Supercharge II’. This sector was beyond the reach of any Allied heavy artillery, but this was more than balanced by the availability of some 22 fighter-bomber squadrons, which decimated all Axis transport and armour in the area of the Tebaga gap.
Under Horrocks’s command the Allies smashed through the Tebaga gap, but rather than press on straight to the coast Horrocks decided to mop up, and this offered Messe just enough time to fall back relatively intact from the Mareth Line to another excellent defensive position, this time a mere 8 miles (13 km) long on the Wadi Akarit to the north of Gabès.
Messe had lost some 16 battalions, 60 tanks and 31 pieces of artillery, but had completely spoiled Montgomery’s chance of a rapid advance to Tunis.