Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Mareth Line 1943

We will roll up the whole show from the south.
General Bernard Law Montgomery to Field Marshal Harold Alexander.

"Contrary to the Desert Victory mythology," notes Rick Atkinson in his book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning An Army at Dawn, "pursuit after Alemain was hardly 'relentless.'" True, the battle had been a great, important victory for the Allies, but the British Eighth Army failed to exploit their success, sticking to the Mediterranean coast instead of its Axis enemy like glue. Still, it left both Eighth Army and its commander, General Bernard Law Montgomery, extremely arrogant. That is, until the British faced the Mareth Line.
 A trench of the Mareth Line.

A heavily fortified defensive position stretching from the sea to the Matmata Hills, the Mareth Line was constructed by in the 1930s by a France afraid of being attacked by their Italian neighbors in Libya. Now, ironically, those same Italians were manning those same defenses that the French had erected to keep them from grabbing Tunisia, and the First Italian Army, which was composed of 50,000 sons of Germany and 35,000 sons of Italy and under the command of General Giovanni Messe, was ordered by Commando Supremo, the Italian high command, to defend Mareth "to the last."

The British, of course, planned on obliging their enemy. Monty's original plan seemed (and would turn out to be) foolish in the extreme: the flanking movement by the New Zealand Corps would take backseat to the assualt of XXX Corps, which would pound the Mareth Line head on until it punched a hole that X Corps would exploit. Montgomery thought his enemy, outnumbered in everything from manpower to tanks, could not withstand the might of his army; hence, such an emphasis on outflanking his opponent was considered unnecessary.

Some preliminary operations on March 16, 1943, was a sign of things to come. Ten miles from the coast, 6th Grenadier Guards and 3rd Coldstreams assailed an enemy sailent on a grouping of hills called the Horseshoe, which, according to intelligence, was supposedly "lightly held." That peice of information was dead wrong; the German 90th Light Division had 6,500 men in that salient, soldiers of the Fatherland whose fierce resistance finally compelled the Guardsmen to retreat. In the words of an Eighth Army officer, that night attack was "the most damnable thing."
Zero Hour: The Mareth Offensive, 1943 by Jack Chaddock.

And more damnable things were to follow. Four days later, while Monty was enjoying his past triumph at Alemain by watching the movie Desert Victory on an army blanket that acted as an improvised screen, Eight Army, after an artillery barrage that expended 36,000 rounds, launched the main assualt in the night. Infantrymen "thug patrols" laid the scaling ladders they were carrying over Wadi Zigzaou; tank crews dropped fascines- dense bundles of sticks that had been in use since the wars of the Middle Ages of yore- on the wadi to facilitate their machines' crossings; Tommies helped their comrades climb the banks; and tape was laid to denote a safe path through the minefields. While all these measures worked, none could cope with mother nature.

British infantrymen show how they used the ladders to scale Wadi Zigzaou,
March 27, 1943.
She had the muddy Zigzaou, which many a Valentine tank got stuck in, blocking the path for the rest of the tanks. Fascines, set aflame by the exhaust, burned in the darkness, making the tanks an even clearer target for the enemy to see. Although four tanks managed to surmount the wadi, the number was only four tanks, insufficient to support the British troops on the mile wide and half a mile deep toehold they had gained on the other side.

The next day found the Tommies at the mercy of the Italian artillery; however, they did not hunker down, continuing instead to take pillbox after pillbox from the enemy, hoping that the tanks could ford the wadi more successfully that night unlike the last one. Mother nature had another trick of her sleeve: poor weather for Allied aircraft, making the Royal Artillery the only help they received, help that proved ineffective. As it turned out, only one crossing out of an intended three was made on the wadi.

Still, on the 22nd, it did allow 42 Valentines to cross, but that was it since their tracks put the bridge out of commission. Once again, the cloudy heavens prevented any aerial aid. Despite all this, Montgomery was still optimistic, which he conveyed to his superior, Field Marshal Harold Alexander that day: "My operations progressing well. Suggest you announce that my operations are proceeding satisfactorily and according to plan."

The German counterattack at 1:40 P.M., a mere hour and 55 minutes after Monty sent this message, made such a claim even more questionable, indeed, a bunch of "bunk." Onward came 30 tanks and two infantry battalions of the 15th Panzer division, destroying Valentine after Valentine, overcoming one British position after another, and making the combat so personal that when the weather sufficienlty improved and the Allied pilots did take to the skies, they felt helpless lest their bullets cause victims of friendly fire. "More fascines!" was the war cry of the shirtless Indian engineers who were desperately trying to fix the sole crossing as shells rained down upon them, splashing into the water and wetting their uniforms. When darkness was total, the brigehead had been virtually eliminated. To the rear the Tommies went, which was noted by correspondent Jack Belden: "Crowds of men wounded and unwounded flitted like wraiths through the haze. Some crawled. Some stumbled. Some marched erect."

A Royal Artillery peice bombards the Mareth Line.

"What am I to do, Freddie?" was the question the humbled Montgomery asked his chief of staff, Brigadier General Francis de Guingand after he was told by XXX Corps commander, General Oliver W.H. Leese about the failed operation on the very early morning of March 23. Studying the map, Monty decided what he was to do. He made the Kiwis the men who would deliver the primary, crushing blow, something he should have done in the first place. At 4:30 A.M., the New Zealand Corps was given new orders. The roles were now reversed: XXX Corps would be playing second fiddle to the New Zealanders. While Leese would distract the Axis in the front with three of his divisions, the Kiwis would receive reinforcements, not just in terms of more forces but also in terms of a new commander, Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks.

The new plan went into effect at 3:30 on the afternoon of March 26 when bombers dropped their payloads on the Axis, whose positions were made easier targest courtesy of blue and red smoke shells the Royal Artillery fired. At four, the major bombardment commenced, and also by the that time, mother nature seemed to switch sympathies for a moment, sending in a sandstorm that made it hard for the defenders to see anything. Fifteen minutes later, it was the infantrymen's turn, the Maoris among them screaming as they rode the tanks.

A wounded Tommy shares a cigarette with a German prisoner during the Battle
of Mareth, March 1943.

Messe was not caught off guard by this attack. Even before Monty had changed his plans, the Luftwaffe had informed him of the Kiwis' movement, and, thanks to the breaking of the enigma code, the British were aware that their opponent was ready for them. To deal with this threat, Messe dispatched the 164th Division, followed by the 21st and- once it had eliminated the toehold at Zigzaou, of course- the 15th Panzer Divisions. Nevertheless, a successful night attack by the New Zealanders on March 21 presented a priceless opportunity to strike the enemy from behind, possibly destroying the First Italian Army and making the battle for the Mareth Line even more decisive than Alamein. But that was not to be; cautiousness and inaction took precedence.

The British were paying for this folly with their blood five days later, and it was tough fight. On one hill, there were so many German casualties that a British officer stated it was more he "had seen in a small area since the Somme in 1916." Gurkhas of the 4th Indian Division, "not unlike hounds finding the scent," sniffed out droves of victims. A retreating enemy was bombarded by stones thrown by Maoris who had run out of ammunition. The British gained four miles into the Tebaga Gap, the pass the attackers had go through to outflank the defenders, for there were no others in the forbidding Matmata Hills.

Fortune frowned the following day. Both sides raced for the road junction of El Hamma, the Germans getting their first, and only eleven German antitank guns, as "crudely effective as a dropped portcullis" in Atkinson's words, held up the advancing horde of His Majesty's troops for more than 24 hours three miles south of the junction. When they finally outflanked the Mareth Line, Messe had already withdrawn his forces and was heading toward Wadi Akarit to the north. The Battle of Mareth was over.

The battle could perhaps best be described as a qualified Allied victory, a victory that could have been more successful but was a success nonetheless. Eight Army suffered 4,000 casualties; the Axis, 7,000 prisoners, 75 percent of whom were German. "It was the most enjoyable battle I have ever fought," Monty would remember. Maybe so, but it could have been even more enjoyable.

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