Operation Scipio (ii)

(Scipio Africanus, great Roman general of the late 3rd century BC)

This was a British offensive by General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army to break through the Axis defences of the Wadi Akarit line in southern Tunisia (5/6 April 1943).

After the 8th Army’s ‘Pugilist-Gallop’ and 'Supercharge II' successes on the Mareth Line, Generale d’Armata Giovanni Messe’s Axis 1st Army had fallen back to this line and prepared to hold strong defences on what was the last natural barrier to the British advance in the southern end of Tunisia’s eastern coastal plain. Messe had been able to start preparing defences on this formidable barrier only on 27 March, for up to that time the Comando Supremo in Rome had ordained that the 8th Army would be unable to breach the defences of the Mareth Line without a protracted battle.

Generale di Corpo d’Armata Taddeo Orlando’s XX Corpo d’Armata was given responsibility for developing the defences, but was seriously hampered by lack of the necessary materials, including mines and barbed wire, so the line consisted primarily of the man-improved Wadi Akarit extending inland for some 4 miles (6.4 km) from the coast of the Gulf of Gabès, the precipitous Djebel Roumana and the Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa complex, covered by some anti-tank ditches, small minefields, artillery positions and a few extemporised machine gun nests.

While Generale di Corpo d’Armata Paulo Berardi’s Italian XXI Corpo d’Armata held the inland sector to the west of the Djebel Haidoudi with Generale di Divisione Giuseppe Falugi’s 16a Divisione ‘Pistoia’, a detachment of Generalleutnant Willibald Borowietz’s 15th Panzerdivision, the survivors of Generalmajor Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein’s 164th leichte Afrikadivision and the remnants of Generale di Corpo d’Armata Alberto Mannerini’s Raggruppamento Sahariano, the Wadi Akarit was the responsibility of the XX Corpo d’Armata on which, from east to west, were deployed Generale di Divisione Nino Sozzani’s 136a Divisione corazzata ‘Giovani Fascisti’ in the coastal sector, two battalions of Generalleutnant Theodor Graf von Sponeck’s 90th Afrikadivision, Generale di Divisione Francesco La Ferla’s 101a Divisione motorizzata ‘Trieste’, and Generale di Divisione Gavino Pizzolato’s 80a Divisione aviotrasportabile ‘La Spezia’ linking the XX Corpo d’Armata with the 16a Divisione ‘Pistoia’ on the eastern flank of the XXI Corpo d’Armata. In reserve Messe held the 361st Panzergrenadierregiment and 190th Panzerjägerabteilung of the 90th Afrikadivision in the Fatnassa area, and the 15th Panzerdivision (less the detachment with the XXI Corpo d’Armata) and the 200th Panzergrenadierregiment of the 90th Afrikadivision in the Roumana area.

The British 8th Army thus faced an Axis defence manned by one depleted corps possessing only modest artillery and armour support, but the nature of the Wadi Akarit position meant that the British could not make effective use of their substantial quantitative advantage in men, artillery and armour. Montgomery’s plan was therefore to use Major General D. N. Wimberley’s 51st Division of Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s XXX Corps to breach the Axis position so that the divisions of Lieutenant General M. C. Dempsey’s X Corps could exploit to the north, thus regaining the momentum of the high-speed advance to Sfax, Sousse and Tunis planned in March at the time of the Mareth Line battle.

The plan for the exploitation was based on Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division leading the way to the airfields around Mezzouna, where Major General R. Briggs’s 1st Armoured Division would assume the lead.

Reconnaissances then revealed that the strength of the Axis forces was somewhat greater than had been anticipated, and Leese therefore decided that the initial assault should be undertaken by two divisions, namely Major General F. I. S. Tuker’s Indian 4th Division supplementing the coastal effort of the 51st Division (against the 136a Divisione corazzata, 90th Afrikadivision and 101a Divisione motorizzata) with an inland drive against the 80a Divisione aviotrasportabile between the Djebel Roumana and the Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa.

Neither Wimberley nor Tuker liked the tasks allocated to his division, the latter complaining that his men would be subjected to intense enfilade fire from the Axis forces on the Djebel Roumana and Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa. Once more, therefore, Leese changed the plan to an assault by the 51st Division on the Djebel Roumana, held by the 101a Divisione motorizzata and 80a Divisione aviotrasportabile, during 6 April, while the main effort was made by the Indian 4th Division against the complex terrain of the Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa position, held by the 361st Panzergrenadierregiment and part of the 16a Divisione. The division was to take this on the night of 5/6 April before bridging the anti-tank ditch below it and so opening the way for the exploitation phase of the operation. The third component of the revised plan was a central assault by Brigadier E. C. Cooke-Collis’s 69th Brigade of Major General J. S. Nichols’s 50th Division against the anti-tank ditch between the Djebel Roumana and El Hachana at the eastern end of the Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa complex.

Several diversions were also ordained, perhaps counter-productively, and these included those of the 1st Armoured Division against the Djebel Haidoudi pass in the XXI Corpo d’Armata’s sector, and of Brigadier J. A. Gascoigne’s 201st Guards Motor Brigade of the 51st Division in the coastal sector against the 136a Divisione corazzata and 90th Afrikadivision.

The whole width of the British assault was a mere 8 miles (13 km) between the Gulf of Gabès and the Chott el Djerid, a marshy lake which the British believed to be impenetrable but was in fact drying out.

The strength of the Axis position was great, and Messe thought that Montgomery would attack only at the time of the next full moon on 19/20 April. Montgomery also thought that a night assault was essential, but opted for the darkness of the new moon on 5/6 April, when the Indian 4th Division moved off with Brigadier O. D. T. Lovett’s Indian 7th Brigade in the lead to take Rass Zouai, where Brigadier D. R. E. R. Bateman’s Indian 5th Brigade would pass through it to take the Fatnassa ridge, the object being to capture or neutralise the Axis positions on the Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa by 08.30 on 6 April. The Indian 4th Division was generally successful, its 7th Brigade taking Ras Zouai by 24.00 and pushing on to the Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa by 04.00 while its 5th Brigade wheeled slightly right toward the gap between Point 152 (at the eastern end of the Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa) and El Hachana. The 69th Brigade made little impression in its sector, but both Brigadier G. Murray’s British 152nd Brigade and Brigadier J. E. Stirling’s British 154th Brigades of the 51st Division fared better, the former taking the Djebel Roumana and pushing on toward Point 112, while the latter broke through the left flank of the 101a Divisione motorizzata and headed for the coastal road running to the north from Gabès to Sfax.

By 12.00 on 6 April the Indian 5th Brigade was being counterattacked by the 200th Panzergrenadierregiment, and the 154th Brigade was receiving the attentions of the 15th Panzerdivision.

Leese had ordered the movement of the New Zealand 2nd Division at 11.10, this formation being instructed to use the junction of the 50th Division and 51st Division as its route into the Axis rear. Plans were also laid for the continuance of the battle on 7 April with the support of the army’s artillery (which would lay a heavy bombardment on the Axis rear areas) and the armour of the X Corps, but the situation was now swaying against the Axis forces, though Messe was not yet convinced that the battle was lost. Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, commanding Heeresgruppe ‘Afrika’ and presently at Messe’s headquarters, thought differently and ordered a retreat to start at the fall of night. Messe acted in advance of this and extricated the best of his Italian troops in the limited motor transport available to the Axis 1st Army, leaving the Germans and some of the Italians to make the attempt to escape on foot.

von Arnim’s reasoning was that as defeat was probable, it was better to pull back a short way in good order, especially as the Axis forces’ right flank in southern Tunisia was seriously threatened by the 'Wop' advance of Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US II Corps, which linked with Montgomery’s left flank on 8 April between Gabès and El Guettar. But Messe would have no truck with intermediate stop lines and pulled well back, the 80a Divisione aviotrasportabile and 101a Divisione motorizzata to Enfidaville and the 136a Divisione corazzata to El Deem. The Axis position in southern Tunisia was thus lost.

It was at the break of day on 7 April that the 8th Army found that the Axis forces had quietly withdrawn. The 15th Panzerdivision had suffered many losses, the 164th leichte Afrikadivision had lost most its weapons and vehicles and at least three Italian divisions had suffered so heavy that they had to be amalgamated into one unit. The 80a Divisione had been reduced to 1.5 companies of infantry, the 101a Divisione motorizzata to three weak battalions, and the 16a Divisione motorizzata and the 90th leichte Afrikadivision had each suffered heavy losses.

‘Scipio’ (ii) had cost the 8th Army 1,289 casualties, while the Axis losses included some 7,000 men taken prisoner in addition to a substantial number of dead and wounded.

To the north-west, at El Guettar, the US II Corps' operation to cut off the Axis forces during 'Scipio' (ii) had meanwhile been held up, but the Axis retirement from the Wadi Akarit position now compelled the Italians to withdraw. On 7 April, the US forces made good speed along the road linking El Guettar and Gabès, and linked with the advanced troops of the 8th Army at 17.00. General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, commanding the Allied forces of the 18th Army Group in Tunisia, now moved the US II Corps to the north as the 8th Army was deemed better prepared for the final offensive. The British pursuit covered 140 miles (225 km) to the north of Wadi Akarit, and captured Sfax and Sousse.

The Axis troops fell back to defensible positions north and west of Enfidaville, 25 miles (40 km) to the south of Cape Bon in the far north-east of Tunisia. Here the mountains descend to the sea, with only a narrow passage to Hammamet, and the Axis forces held this area until the Axis surrender in North Africa, and the 8th Army’s units were moved toward Medjez el Bab opposite Tunis for the 'Vulcan' final operation of the Tunisian campaign.