Bardia to Enfidaville
On 19 March enemy dispositions and strengths were as follows:
From north to south in the Mareth Line
In reserve to the Mareth Line
15 Panzer Division—50 tanks, 7000 men
In the Tebaga switch line
Saharan Group—see following page for strength
On the Gafsa front
10 Panzer Division—50 tanks, 6000 men
Centauro Group—30 tanks, 7000 men
The 19th Flak Division, with sixteen 88-millimetre batteries and several 20-millimetre anti-aircraft batteries, was all on the coast, the 1st Luftwaffe Brigade, little stronger than a battalion, was behind Young Fascists, and Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment watched the main Gabes–Mareth road. These, together with 164 Light Division, comprised the only mobile infantry groups available.
The estimated grand total of enemy fighting strength was 73,500 men, 480 anti-tank guns, 455 field and medium guns, 220 tanks, and 75 88-millimetre guns.1
1 The fighting strength of Eighth Army was:
A direct comparison of the fighting strengths of Eighth Army and 1 Italian Army is not now possible, for it seems certain that some of the units maintaining the Axis in the field are not included, while all services and many lines-of-communication establishments are included in the Eighth Army fighting strength. On the basis of the estimated Axis total of 73,500, it might give a better comparison to say that Eighth Army, with four infantry and two armoured divisions, together with army and corps troops, totalled about 90,000.
On the other hand, a contemporary estimate of the Axis troops facing Eighth Army was 115,000, with 139 tanks.
The Saharan Group was commanded by the Italian General Mannerini and consisted of a somewhat scrappy lot of Italian units which Messe himself later described as ‘picked up here and there’. Its exact constitution is not known, but there was a ‘Savona Brigade’ and various Saharan companies largely drawn from frontier guards and from remnants of the garrison posts in southern Libya. One German narrator says that there were ‘about five battalions and three light batteries’, but this estimate is certainly too low for artillery units. Another detailed estimate shows that there were about ten companies of sorts and eight batteries, very mixed in nature and calibre. Probably the total strength was something short of 2500, which is the highest figure given anywhere. It was known to the Intelligence service—and so to NZ Corps—that the troops in the Gap were all Italian, and that they were not particularly well organised.
Post-war evidence indicates that while the enemy expected a flank attack on the Mareth defences, he did not think initially that the outflanking force would be so strong or would ‘go large’ as far south-west as Foum Tatahouine; but from 16 March onwards his occasional reconnaissance planes made him more and more aware of the assembly of NZ Corps, although he believed it to be a combination of 10 Armoured Division and 4 Indian Division. At this time 2 NZ Division was thought to be still round Medenine. On 16 March Messe reported definitely that Eighth Army was preparing to launch an operation west of the Matmata Hills.
Rommel was succeeded as Commander-in-Chief by General von Arnim of 5 Panzer Army, which General von Vaerst took over. Rommel's army, now renamed 1 Italian Army, was under General Messe. (He was not promoted Marshal until the last day of fighting in North Africa.) This was the first time that German divisions had come under Italian field command. Rommel's last act was to appoint a German general to be liaison officer with 1 Italian Army, the appointment being effective as from 8 March, which was a day or so before Rommel left Africa. His appointee was Major-General Bayerlein, who had long experience in North Africa with Africa Corps and on Rommel's staff.1
1 Bayerlein was lucky to be wounded a few days before the end in North Africa, and so avoided capture in the final debacle. He later commanded an armoured division in Normandy, and both an armoured division and a corps in the Ardennes offensive in December 1944.