Bardia to Enfidaville
It was on this night of 20–21 March that NZ Corps was to make apparent a serious threat against the Gabes—Matmata road, and on this same night 30 Corps was to commence its offensive against the main Mareth Line. The frontal and the outflanking attacks were the two parts of one combined attack, the full results of which would only be achieved if they were simultaneous. Any hesitation of the one part, until it was seen what was happening on the other, would be certain to produce a check.
It was already apparent that the Army Commander was a little concerned about the timing of the moves of NZ Corps, and short of giving a direct order to push on faster, was trying to speed things up. Past experience had shown that the Germans were very steady and capable of fending off short-range flank pressure while their main body slipped away. A flank attack of vigour and weight was called for, and the obvious course was to attack and capture PLUM, after which no real defensive position existed between NZ Corps and either the road from Matmata to Gabes or the village of El Hamma. The loss of PLUM would clearly threaten the enemy's line of communication, and must produce some result such as the thinning out of the Mareth Line to strengthen the flank defences.
But to comply with the Army plan, and with the original timings, the attack should go in on the night 20–21 March and the Gap be forced by early on the 21st. New Zealand Corps was at this stage about twelve hours ahead of schedule, and during the evening of 20 March General Freyberg informed Eighth Army that he intended to move on PLUM at first light on 21 March and asked that it should be bombed at 8 a.m., so losing any advantage that might have been gained.
The NZ Corps plan for 21 March was for KDG to move at first light and reconnoitre the whole enemy line, while 8 Armoured Brigade would move at 7 a.m. and endeavour to break through the eastern end of the defences. (It will be clear from the map that NZ Corps was approaching the Gap diagonally from the south-east and not square on.) Divisional Cavalry was to form a right-flank guard. This procedure conformed with the original conception of first attempting to manoeuvre the enemy from PLUM, but the pace of the advance was already lagging and the initial plan for an infantry attack mounted within three hours of being checked was in abeyance.
Divisional Cavalry began to move at 6.10 a.m. and established patrols on a six-mile radius to the north-east and south-east. At its southern point it was in touch with French patrols, which were stretched out on a wide arc as far south as the road to the Hallouf page 179 Pass. On the other flank French forces occupied Bir Soltane during the morning without opposition. The situation was still fluid enough for the GOC to give some thought to the rear of the Corps, and 5 Brigade provided a rearguard to take post behind 1 Ammunition Company, the rear unit at the time.
King's Dragoon Guards reconnoitred well up to the enemy line, despite running into a minefield about four miles south of the centre of the line. The 8th Armoured Brigade advanced towards the eastern end of the enemy position close to Zemlet el Madjel, the western feature of Djebel Melab, found the going very rough and rocky, but made fair progress until it was halted by a combination of mines and shellfire. Notts Yeomanry (Lieutenant-Colonel J. D. Player) on the right flank tried to find a way round the enemy's left; but although they destroyed a gun and a few trucks they could not make any penetration. The 1st Buffs in support of Notts Yeomanry ran on to a minefield. The 3rd Royal Tanks (Lieutenant-Colonel D. A. H. Silvertop, MC) met strong enemy resistance astride the Kebili road round Point 170, and later in the day probed the enemy defences north of Point 180. Staffs Yeomanry (Lieutenant-Colonel J. A. Eadie, DSO) then came up on the left and managed to advance a little on the north of the Kebili road, but all in all a combination of mines, wire, infantry and anti-tank guns held up the advance, which was somewhat piecemeal.
PLUM was duly bombed at 8 a.m. and many fires started, but this was insufficient to allow the tanks, unsupported by infantry, to get through.1
The rest of 21 March was on the whole a day of reconnaissance, and the GOC spent the day well forward. During the morning, in company with the CRA (Brigadier Weir) and the Commander 6 Brigade (Brigadier Gentry), he was with Tactical Headquarters 8 Armoured Brigade. At first the COs of 25 and 26 Battalions accompanied their brigade commander but it soon became obvious that there would be no early attack, and they went back to their battalions.
The artillery was greatly helped by some useful and accurate trig lists which had been found in Tripoli. Both 4 Field Regiment and 211 Medium Battery were in action in the morning, and later moved up by batteries closer to the enemy positions. They were shelled at intervals, and Mac Troop had nine casualties.
1 Forward troops were bombed on the way back, despite the burning of orange smoke, the arranged signal. One man was killed and one or two trucks destroyed in 4 Field Regiment.
By afternoon it had been established that the enemy defences followed the line of an old Roman wall, in front of which the feature Point 201 formed a strongly defended outpost. The wall itself was a line of crumbling rock about eighteen inches to two feet high and two to three feet wide, and was clearly visible across the Gap. Apparently, even in olden days the Romans had defended Tebaga Gap.
It was not until the middle of the afternoon that it was decided that infantry must force a way through the minefield to allow the tanks to push through. Sixth Infantry Brigade would attack, and 8 Armoured Brigade would move through the gap at first light and fan out to right and left, leading a general advance on El Hamma. When this plan was formulated it was believed that Germans had arrived in the line, but this was not correct.page 181
General Freyberg warned Brigadier Gentry at 3 p.m. that 6 Brigade would be required to attack that night, and at 5 p.m. when at Point 180, from which Point 201 was visible, he confirmed this. He directed 6 Brigade to capture Point 201 that night with the support of all available artillery, subject however to a restriction to sixty rounds per gun, as there might be a shortage of ammunition. This was over-cautious, for the line of communication was fully operative and, in fact, fifty rounds per gun were distributed at last light to all batteries that had been in action.
Brigadier Gentry had already warned his battalion commanders to meet him at Point 180, and gave his verbal orders for the attack within a few minutes of receiving the GOC's orders. Reports from forward troops had supported the information already available from air photographs and the artillery targets were given to the CRA, who was present throughout, from these. As ammunition expenditure was to be limited, the bombardment was confined to the enemy's forward defences. One squadron of Sherman tanks from 3 RTR was under command of 6 Infantry Brigade.
All arrangements were made by 5.30 p.m., only about twenty minutes after the GOC had given his orders. At 6.35 p.m. the following order was issued from Brigade Headquarters:1
Confirming verbal orders. 6 Bde will attack and capture hill feature 201 tonight. Right 26 Bn left 25 Bn inter bn boundary 89 easting grid. start line east and west through 180 hill feature. zero hour 2130 hrs when inf leaves start line. arty programme zero to zero plus 21 minutes on enemy FDLs finishing with one round smoke. thence lift 300 yards for one min thence till zero plus 60 mins on trig 201 at rate one rd per min as guide to adv inf. inf rate of adv to enemy FDLs 100 yards in one and a half mins thence 100 yards in two mins. bde HQ closes present location 2000 hrs move to start line on axis. ADS moves with Bde HQ and establishes 600 yards due south of start line on axis. axis to centre of start line normal provost lights ending with two blue. start line taped. units not taking part in attack remain present area.
Sections were detached from 8 Field Company to clear minefield gaps, one to each attacking battalion, from sixteen to twenty-four yards wide, and about 250 yards from the centre line of the advance, which ran through the summit of Point 201. A provost detachment worked with each section.
1 Certain figured map references have been omitted for clarity to present-day readers.
It transpired that the officer sent with the provosts to mark the axis and start line had moved too fast for the provosts, who had to place lamps, and the latter were left behind. All was well in the end, but it gave Gentry an uncomfortable few minutes.
The order quoted on the previous page is an impressive example of simplicity combined with clarity and brevity, and shows the state of training that had now been reached in 2 NZ Division. For none but first-class troops could have faced an approach march and a subsequent attack under the timings given.
The 25th and 26th Battalions moved by transport some two miles up the axis and debussed about a mile from the start line, thereafter marching on foot and reaching their positions in good time. One enemy bomber came over while the troops were in vehicles, but his bombs did no damage.
At 10 p.m. the artillery opened fire and the infantry advanced across the start line in brilliant moonlight. The 26th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel D. J. Fountaine) on the right flank had A Company on the right and D on the left, with B in support and C in reserve. The 25th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel T. B. Morten) had C Company on the right and A on the left, with D behind A, and B as reserve.
The enemy did not open fire until the twenty-one minute concentration was over, and by that time the forward companies were ahead of the enemy's fixed lines, and the advance was not held up. At one point, however, Headquarters 26 Battalion and the reserve company were pinned to the ground by flanking fire, which led the battalion commander to send his Intelligence Officer back to Brigade Headquarters to ask for tank support. But by that time the brigade commander had estimated that the overall position was good and that nothing would be gained by sending up tanks; and in fact, after a brief delay at some wire, where several casualties were suffered, soon after midnight first D Company and then A Company reached its objective and fired the success signal, followed by B Company shortly afterwards. The battalion had gone slightly off course to the east, but this did not affect the successful outcome, which included the taking of many prisoners. From then on until daylight there was only spasmodic shelling of the battalion position.
On the left 25 Battalion had a more adventurous time. C and A Companies pressed on steadily, attacking and passing the first enemy positions, which consisted of fortified and well-dug trenches. Meanwhile D Company, after some initial delay, deployed to the left of A Company and also advanced steadily, capturing among other things a small field-gun position. B Company in reserve was pinned down by fixed-line fire, and its headquarters put out of action. C and A Companies went on towards Point 201, while D Company covered the left flank, and in so doing got amongst enemy transport and guns in an exhilarating action. Finally all three companies consolidated on the northern slopes of 201, while B Company deployed in the rear. Again the battalion had gone slightly to the east and had occupied the whole of Point 201, but this had no effect upon a clear-cut victory.
The attack had shown good planning, a determined approach, and resolute fighting, and was an outstanding success. The casualties were 11 killed and 68 wounded and missing. Thirty-two officers and 817 other ranks were captured, all Italian; and weapons captured included some hundreds of rifles, 32 MMGs, 10 anti-tank guns and 12 75-millimetre infantry guns.
About midnight, when Brigadier Gentry was certain that his attack was successful, he telephoned the GOC and urged that 8 Armoured Brigade should be moved through at once instead of delaying until first light. To this the GOC replied that it might be difficult to move the armour so unexpectedly, but that Gentry had his authority to take a message to the commander 8 Armoured Brigade asking that the tanks should move forthwith through the minefield to exploit the infantry success. No direct message was sent from Corps Headquarters to Brigadier Harvey, who was not on the telephone. Gentry entrusted the mission to the officer commanding the Machine-Gun Company under command (Captain I. S. Moore), who was at Brigade Headquarters at the time. This officer made contact with Brigadier Harvey and gave him the message, which was in the form of a request and not an order. There was some discussion between Harvey and Moore, but as the form in which the message had been sent did not appear to indicate a real urgency, and as there was the normal need for maintenance and rest, Harvey thought that it would be better to adhere to his original orders to move at first light. There is no doubt that if he had received a direct order to push on, the order that the circumstances seem to call for, he would have complied.
The 6 Brigade victory thus remained an isolated one in the midst of a lethargy in the rest of the Corps. And the final fruits of the little victory had yet to be picked. The 8th Field Company page 184 had followed up closely and by the early hours of 22 March had filled in an anti-tank ditch and prepared lanes through the minefield. The squadron of tanks under command commenced to move up behind 25 Battalion at 2.30 a.m. They were intended primarily for anti-tank defence in case of failure to get other weapons forward, but before daylight all supporting arms were in place. In the first daylight hours the combined efforts of the various infantry weapons, supported in one case by a tank, caused much damage and led to the surrender of another 400 Italians. There was never a clearer case of moral superiority, and obviously a clean wedge had been driven through PLUM.
In the opinion of some subordinate commanders at the time, and on reviewing the facts today, there can be little doubt that an opportunity was lost, and that if 8 Armoured Brigade had passed through about 3 a.m. it could have disrupted the Italian position, and might well have been through the four miles' length of gap by daylight. Such an attack presupposed a really offensive design within the Corps, and this was not visible at the time.
The reason for the GOC's caution may have been that just before 6 Brigade attacked, he had received another message from the Army Commander saying that everything pointed to the likelihood of the enemy being put off balance as the NZ Corps movement developed. He suggested that NZ Corps should reach GRAPE (northwest of Gabes) as soon as possible, should then attack Gabes and page 185 destroy all the enemy depots there, and then operate with mobile forces towards Mareth, while holding Gabes securely against any enemy withdrawal northwards. He asked for a forecast when the GOC expected to reach GRAPE.
This was in fact a modified version of the Army Commander's SIDEWINDOWS alternative, and was a departure from the existing plan, which for 30 Corps was to capture Gabes while NZ Corps bypassed the town. The GOC's earlier preference, expressed by his reluctance to accept Montgomery's accelerated timetable and by his insistence that Leese inform him should the 30 Corps attack falter, that the enemy reserve should be committed at Mareth before NZ Corps drove forward from Tebaga, now appeared to reassert itself, and from this perspective it must have seemed that he was being asked to advance alone and absorb single-handed the thrust of all the mobile armour and infantry. It was a situation which presented with immediate insistence, and in a new form, the necessity of deciding whether to risk all on Montgomery's judgment and chance a serious encounter with the bulk of 1 Italian Army, or whether to go slowly and carefully and wait until NZ Corps should not be alone in the field. The point that success on the Mareth front had always been dependent on the speed with which NZ Corps turned the flank at the Tebaga switch line seems again to have been submerged in a wave of caution. Freyberg replied that it was too early to prophesy, but that if the 6 Brigade attack was successful the Corps would operate towards PEACH (El Hamma). There was no mention of GRAPE or of the other tasks suggested to him.
The fighting on the front of NZ Corps for the next four days— 22 to 25 March inclusive—shows a similarity from day to day, inching forward in the centre and flanks, with exploratory reconnaissance on either flank. The total advance in the centre was of the order of only 1500 yards, for by the evening of 22 March, 21 Panzer Division was on the scene, and on 23 March 164 Light Division had also arrived. These troops were a different proposition from the Italians, and any chance of a speedy breakthrough had gone.
The activities of NZ Corps during daylight on 21 March—the various reconnaissances—were enough to induce the enemy to speed up the moves of 21 and 164 Divisions. About 9.30 a.m. 21 Division was ordered to move to the area just north of Zemlet el Madjel, and later in the day 164 Division was relieved by Pistoia Division and was moved back to a central position on the Gabes—Kebili road some ten miles from Gabes. The 21 st Panzer Division moved with increasing speed as the day went on, with the general idea of attacking through Point 201 along the line of the road from Gabes to Kebili. At this time 6 Brigade had not captured Point 201.page 186