After evacuating Tripoli Rommel had fallen back to the Mareth line across the Tunisian frontier. This was a short and heavily fortified belt, running from the sea to the rugged Matmata mountains, and it had originally been prepared by the French to resist an Italian invasion from Tripoli. Modernized and strongly held, it looked like being a hard nut to crack. 7 Armoured Division and 51 Division moved up to Medenine, a few miles east of Mareth and there halted for observation. The advance could not be resumed until Tripoli harbour had been cleared of mines and wreckage, supplies brought in, and more troops brought up. Tripoli is 1,400 miles from Alamein, 1,700 from Suez; and it was not callousness that made General Montgomery regard 500 tons of ammunition as more important than three lives.
On the morning of 2 March 5 Brigade was ordered to move to Medenine, 170 miles away, with the utmost dispatch. I went off within an hour, taking Monty and the C.O.s—still Harding, Romans, and Bennett from the battalions, and Glasgow from the artillery—and leaving Denis Blundell to get the Brigade on the move. We reported to General Leese in the evening and were very well received. He explained that 10 Panzer Division, after its recent success against the Americans, was on its way down to join Afrika Korps, which would then attack. The Medenine position was held by the Highlanders and 201 Guards Brigade, with a long, refused left held by one battalion of the Buffs and some anti-tank guns. In reserve the General had 7 Armoured Division, well below strength. He told me that I was to take over the left flank and that the rest of the Division would be in reserve when it arrived.
It was too dark to do anything more that night. First thing next morning we looked at the ground and selected a page 271 line 13,000 yards long, running from the left of the Guards to the Medenine airfield. The airfield was guarded by a battalion of the R.A.F. Regiment which was put under my command. Next day I took over from the Guards another 1,000 yards, which included a wide wadi running into the position and a likely line of approach. This made a total of 17,000 yards or over 4,000 per battalion. I decided on the line of F.D.L.s and allocated areas, Twenty-eighth on the right, Twenty-first in the centre, Twenty-third on the left linking with the R.A.F. Regiment. The C.O.s took over their units as they arrived and all were roughly dug in before nightfall.
We had two full days to prepare and got thoroughly comfortable. Although our front was very long it was not a difficult one to occupy. The ground in front fell away steadily, so that we had very good observation over all approaches except that along the wide wadi on the right. This was held by a company of the Maoris with some British anti-tank six-pounders. On the evening of the 5th we got 500 mines and 3,000 yards of plain wire with pickets. As we now had a squadron of tanks under command and I did not want them to be embarrassed by any doubts about mines, I decided not to use any. Instead we put a wire fence across the wadi and sited a pair of six-pounders in a re-entrant in the bank at one end of the wire. On the rest of the position we had no wires or mines.
Each battalion position had a depth of about a mile, with three rifle companies forward, and six-pounders echeloned in depth. The men were dug into single rifle pits seven or eight yards apart so that each section was on a front of about sixty yards and no amount of shelling would do much harm. The greatest possible emphasis was placed on concealment—I preached that a post spotted is a post destroyed, and hardly one was visible from any distance in front. The British officers who looked at the position later thought that this would have been too great an extension if we had been attacked at night but, knowing our infantry, I did not agree. We had a troop of the new anti-tank seventeen-pounders, then known as Pheasants, which we were not to use without good cause, page 272 and they were sited well back. The whole divisional artillery and several British regiments were able to fire on any part of the front with good observation and the gunners had mastered the technique of quickly putting down massive concentrations. I arranged with them not to fire at any tanks without my request as I wanted to save them for our numerous six-pounders. All weapons had orders to hold fire until decisive range. We always thought this Medenine position was our masterpiece in the art of laying out a defensive position under desert conditions and, after the battle, General Leese sent senior officers from all over the Corps to look at it.
One sad incident occurred while we were waiting. A road ran from Medenine through the centre of the brigade position to the Matmata hills six or seven miles away. One day the 30 Corps mess truck missed a turning and ran straight out across the plain and into the hills and was never heard of again. Rumour alleged that it was full of the most delectable foods and spirits, particularly spirits, which must have been most welcome to some German unit.
On the 5th a long-range gun opened from the hills on to the Medenine airfield. The fighters there got up and flew disconsolately round like a flock of disturbed birds and then had to make off. Our R.A.F. Regiment had some 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns which they had been dying to use against ground targets, and they entertained themselves by firing back, but, as it was a very big gun and far away, without any effect.
16. The Churchill Parade at Tripoli
Mr. Churchill, Generals Leese, Alexander, Freyberg, Brooke, and Montgomery
17. View from Takrouna after Capture, Showing Olive-Groves through Which 5th Brigade Attacked
We had breakfast a little uneasily, for the big gun was firing directly over our heads into the town and we had to keep a wary eye on the fighter-bombers. Shortly afterwards air bursts appeared over the Maori position and Charlie Bennett rang to say that if I cared to come over I would see the sight of my life. I thought this was an odd time to invite me, but got into my new reconnaissance car, a top-heavy little armoured thing called a Dingo, and went over. There were so many air bursts that I was inclined to regret that I never wore a helmet; but I was too superstitious to change my red-banded cap. Charlie was standing at his headquarters, admiring 10 Panzer Division deploying to attack.
They certainly looked most impressive. In front of the right Maori company and about a mile away fifteen tanks in line abreast were advancing swiftly, heading for Metamaur. Behind them was another line. We counted forty-three in all. Still farther behind, and partially concealed by dust, we could see hundreds of lorries, presumably carrying Panzer Grenadiers. It struck me as a very badly co-ordinated attack. While we watched the leading tanks stopped. The commander of each one was standing with head and shoulders out of the turret staring through glasses and they looked almost comically undecided. We had not yet fired a shot. After a few moments they made up their minds, moved on again and slid down into the wadi out of sight. I thought it was time I was at my headquarters, thanked Charlie, and made off. I stopped a few hundred yards away for a last look. The second line of tanks was following into the wadi and the lorries, on a front of more than a mile, were coming slowly forward.
Our guns opened just as I got back. Monty said that Keith Glasgow had reported that enemy infantry had debussed and he was getting concentrations on to them. page 274 The guns were hard at it for perhaps a quarter of an hour. Then the firing slackened down to troops shooting on observation. The attack had been stopped short before it had properly developed. Charlie Bennett rang delightedly. He said that the tanks had come up the wadi until almost up to our wire fence and had then shied off to get round the end. The two six-pounders had knocked out five at short range and the remainder had bolted, one capsizing down a bank in its fright. The infantry had been smothered by the concentrations and after a while had run back to their lorries and cleared off. In fact it was all over on our front.
I went round the battalions. Reg Romans was in a bad humour because an attractive-looking group of armoured cars and lorries which had approached the Twenty-third had been scared off by some wretched gunner opening too soon. The Twenty-first had seen nothing. The total of the brigade casualties was six and we had eighteen prisoners and the six dead tanks. Next day we found about fifty bodies where the infantry had been caught in the open and signs that there had been many more wounded.
The Guards and Highlanders had rather more severe fighting, but the defence was never strained and we understood that the reserves were not moved. By evening Afrika Korps had withdrawn to its starting positions, having lost fifty-two tanks and for the second time failed completely in an attack on Eighth Army under Montgomery. Medenine was a model defensive battle, reminding us very much of the battle in early September. There was exactly the same feeling of complete balance and readiness, and that, though Rommel was attacking, Montgomery had control. There was less severe fighting because Rommel realized more quickly that he was foiled and this time we had no opportunity for counter-attack.
During next day we had scores of visitors to look at our little bag of tanks and, on General Leese's orders, at our dispositions. I went out to where the infantry had been caught and counted the bodies. There I came across Kellett, the second-in-command of 8 Armoured Brigade, holding a page 275 T.E.W.T. The problem was: ‘What orders would you have given if you had commanded 10 Panzer Division yesterday?’ In the discussion, which I stayed to hear, he pointed out how completely the German commander had failed to co-ordinate the action of his armour and infantry. Times had changed since July.