This was a British diversionary undertaking at the south-western end of the Axis forces’ Mareth Line defences in south-eastern Tunisia by Brigadier J. A. Gascoigne’s 201st Guards Motor Brigade in preparation for ‘Pugilist-Gallop’ (16/17 March 1943).
It was on 9 March that Major General J. S. Nichols’s 50th Division arrived on the Mareth front from Tripoli and was allocated to Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s XXX Corps of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army. On 15 March the XXX Corps prepared to attack the Axis outposts of the Mareth Line, and the attacks were delivered during the night of 16/17 March. Nichols had been given the XXX Corps’ outline plan on 4 March, and thereafter was left to get on with the task as he saw best. Nichols was ordered to attack on a narrow front and cross the Wadi Zigzaou somewhere between Hamra Rass and the sea, and sought the place at which the defences appeared weakest, the water in the Wadi Zigzaou was most shallow, and there were crossings of a sort. This process indicated the sector between the strongpoints at Ouerzi and Ksiba Ouest, but a drawback was that from their latest positions the Axis forces looked down on the approaches from the higher ground between Bahira and a point just south of Ouerzi.
The XXX Corps therefore revised in its basic plan. On the night 16/17 March the main attacks on the Axis outposts made by the 50th Division and Major General D. N. Wimberley’s 51st Division were thus to be complemented by a subsidiary attack by the 201st Guards Motor Brigade of Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division to take the strongpoint at Sidi el Guelaa. This was designed to raise doubts in the minds of the Axis commanders about the actual sector selected for the main attack.
Major General F. I. S. Tuker’s Indian 4th Division was to move to an area alongside the 50th Division so that it could exploit success or constitute a reserve in case of failure. The 50th Division’s attack on the Mareth Line outpost positions was made by Brigadier E. C. Cooke-Collis’s 69th Brigade, and was supported by the entire divisional artillery. The brigade was able, with little difficulty, to take all of its objectives to a depth of slightly more than 1 mile (1.6 km) beyond the Wadi Zeuss. To the 50th Division’s left, the 51st Division also took its objectives against negligible opposition.
However, the 6/Grenadier Guards and 3/Coldstream Guards of the 201st Guards Motor Brigade suffered heavy losses from the anti-personnel mines of a minefield which had not been detected, and then encountered determined resistance from the bulk of two battalions of Generalleutnant Theodor Graf von Sponeck’s 90th leichte Afrikadivision. Even so, the two Guards battalions attained most of their objectives, but were then the recipients of a notably intense artillery and mortar bombardment, and could not bring up their supporting weapons. The diversion failed, therefore, and the brigade was withdrawn early on 17 March.
On this day the 50th Division managed to advance the 5/East Yorkshire some 2.5 miles (4 km) forward, in the process taking Mestaoua (Point 16) overlooking the sector between Ouerzi and Ksiba Ouest. Meanwhile the engineers made a track and crossing over the Wadi Zeuss. Two tracks were to be made on the divisional front but rain on 15 March had made their completion uncertain. Yet the 50th Division had made a very good beginning to the Battle of the Mareth Line.