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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II

200 — General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

page 165

General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

10 March 1943

I have to report that your Division has been in action in the fighting on the Mareth Line. The likelihood of the enemy counter-attacking Eighth Army became apparent when all three Panzer divisons moved from central to southern Tunisia. Our forward troops, which had pushed on to relieve the pressure on the Americans in central Tunisia, were dangerously stretched and were not balanced to meet a counter-attack. At very short notice we were called forward to strengthen the line by taking over the Medenine sector. A move of 180 miles by a single road began on the night of 1–2 March, and by midday on 3 March the Division was dug in ready for the attack which appeared to be imminent. Actually we had two more valuable days for completing our preparations. The enemy attack was launched on the 6th along the whole front. The main thrust by infantry and tanks came in against two British brigades to our north and against our right flank held by the Maori Battalion. The attack on our front was repulsed without difficulty. The enemy withdrew out of range after having five tanks set on fire by six-pounder guns. To our north, heavy but rather crude attacks continued throughout the day. They made no impression on the British gunlines. The enemy lost 52 tanks definitely counted on the battlefield, and others were damaged but were recovered by the enemy. Casualties amongst the enemy infantry were also heavy. Whatever the enemy's intentions, the reception he got discouraged any further attempt and the Panzer divisions withdrew behind the Mareth Line. There is no doubt that the enemy underestimated the strength of the force here and suffered a serious reverse, without interfering in any way with our preparations.

I am glad to say that New Zealand casualties in this operation were light: killed—one officer, 5 other ranks; wounded—3 officers, 40 other ranks.

In other operations now pending your Division has an important role. We have under command a British heavy armoured brigade group, a British armoured car regiment, a medium artillery regiment, and the Fighting French Force under General Leclerc.1 For operations the formation is described as the New Zealand Corps. The Division is excellently equipped and the men have complete

1 General Leclerc, CB, DSO and bar; Governor of French Cameroons, 1940; Military Commander of French Equatorial Africa; GOC 2nd French Armoured Division; GOC French Far East Forces, 1945; Inspector-General of French Armies in North Africa, 1946; killed in air accident, 28 Nov 1947.

page 166 confidence in their weapons. Nothing is being taken for granted and the enemy's strength will not be underestimated. Detailed planning is at present in progress.

I have been looking forward to Mr. Jones's visit1 and still hope he arrives in time. I feel it is most important that he should see the fighting men, and although we shall be in a most advanced position I am doing all I can to arrange for him to come up and see as many as possible. To do so he will have to arrive here before the 16th or wait until after the battle.

The news of the victory in the Pacific was received here with the greatest satisfaction.2

1 Mr. Jones left New Zealand by air on 17 Feb on a visit to New Zealanders in the three services in the Middle East, United Kingdom, Canada, and the Pacific. He arrived in Cairo on 16 Mar. At that time the New Zealand Corps was preparing its outflanking move south of the Mareth Line and Mr. Jones's visit to the Division had therefore to be postponed. He left Egypt for the United Kingdom on 3 Apr, returned to Tunisia on the 27th, and, after visiting New Zealand troops in the forward area and in Egypt, left Cairo again for the United Kingdom on 14 May.

2 This was the battle of the Bismarck Sea, 2–4 Mar 1943, in which a Japanese convoy of eight destroyers, one special service vessel, and eight transports bound for Lae, New Guinea, was attacked by Allied aircraft, four of the destroyers and all the other ships being sunk.