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

204 — General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

5 April 1943

I have the honour to report that your Division has just concluded another successful operation. I send this report from the battlefield just north of Gabes during a lull in operations, in the hope that the magnificent part played by the men of your forces and of the British, French, and Greek troops working under our command as the New Zealand Corps can be known to the people at home in New Zealand.

The battle for the Mareth Line is now over and, although further fierce fighting lies ahead, Eighth Army is on the move towards Tunis and the finish of the North African campaign.

page 168

On 6 March Panzer Armée Rommel counter-attacked Eighth Army from the Mareth Line and was repulsed with heavy losses. Your Division was holding part of the front in this action. It was a successful one-day battle in which our massed artillery smashed the enemy tank and infantry attacks before they could penetrate our line. Following this sharp reverse, the enemy withdrew Panzer Armée behind the Mareth defences, and it was clear that he intended to hold this strong natural position with its concrete defences built by French military engineers on the Maginot Line model. All approaches were covered by strongpoints, and a system of military roads behind the position allowed quick movement of mobile reserves.

To counter the Allied attack, Rommel held his defences with Italian and German positional infantry and kept the two Panzer divisions of his Afrika Korps in mobile reserve ready to move against any threatened front, while the 10th Panzer Division faced the Americans on the roads from Gafsa.

The Eighth Army plan of attack was to carry out a two-pronged thrust by a frontal assault on the Mareth Line and an outflanking movement through the desert from an assembly area 80 miles to the south. Our force for this operation was known as the New Zealand Corps. Grouped with the New Zealand Division were the British 8th Armoured Brigade under Brigadier Harvey1 (3rd Royal Tank Regiment, Staffordshire Yeomanry and Nottinghamshire Yeomanry, 1st Battalion Buffs), King's Dragoon Guards, British medium field and anti-tank artillery regiments, and Fighting French forces, under the command of General Leclerc, and a detachment of the Royal Greek Army.

Although the going was extremely bad and the country ill-suited for a flanking movement, the enemy was clearly very nervous about his flank, a result no doubt of our past activities at Agheila and Tripoli. Enemy reconnaissance planes were over the desert approaches each day. Despite the steps taken to ensure surprise, there is no doubt the enemy expected another ‘left hook’. As organised, New Zealand Corps was an extremely fast-moving and hard-hitting formation admirably suited for making a surprise appearance on the battlefield. It relied for its striking power upon the Tank Brigade and its very powerful artillery group under our CRA, Brigadier C. E. Weir.

Since the enemy expected a flanking movement there was little chance of achieving strategic surprise. There is no doubt, however, that as a result of our manóuvres round Rommel's flank since the Battle of Alamein, the enemy did not really know what was coming next. Added to this, they were short of trustworthy reserves, and there still appeared scope for again foxing Rommel. Our aim was page 169 to achieve the greatest degree of tactical surprise possible by dashing in quickly and delivering a sudden violent attack. We planned to lie up in a position that threatened two weak points in their defences—high ground at Matmata, south of Mareth, and a gap farther west between Djebel Tebaga and the Matmata Hills, which led to El Hamma and Gabes.

In many ways the battle for the Mareth Line bears a close resemblance to the attack on Agheila, when your Division with a British armoured brigade carried out an outflanking movement and forced the enemy to withdraw to avoid encirclement. It involved moves by night of 27,000 men and 6000 vehicles, tanks, and guns to an assembly area in the desert, and a race to the objective across unknown and difficult country, followed by a series of quick but overwhelming attacks.

On 11 March New Zealand Corps began to assemble. The whole force was self-contained, with eleven days' food, water, and ammunition and with petrol for 350 miles. By the 18th assembly was complete. Weeks of careful study of the ground from air photographs and patrol reports and detailed planning culminated in an explanation of the operation to all officers and NCOs on a plaster relief model of the area over which we were to move.

We moved all night on 19 March intending to make a surprise approach march by night on the 20th to coincide with the frontal assault on the Mareth Line. When, however, it seemed likely that the enemy were aware of our assembly, we decided to waste no further effort on deception but to rely entirely on speed. We therefore moved in daylight on the 20th in desert formation and raced north to break through to El Hamma and Gabes.

The going was never good and later it became so bad that no progress could be made by night, so that it was not until 3 p.m. on the 21st that armoured cars of the King's Dragoon Guards and light tanks of the Divisional Cavalry gained contact with the enemy. The enemy position, covered by a minefield, was astride the Kebili-Gabes road, close to where it runs through a narrow valley between the precipitous Djebel Tebaga range and the mountainous country which forms the right flank of the Mareth Line. With only three hours of daylight left, our artillery was deployed and registered before dusk. At 10 p.m., in full moonlight, the 25th (Wellington) Battalion and 26th (South Island) Battalion of the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Gentry, accompanied by engineers of the 8th Field Company to clear gaps in the minefield and followed by a squadron of Sherman tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, staged a brilliant attack which went through the minefield and captured Point 201. During this night attack 1500 Italian prisoners page 170 were captured. The early capture of Point 201 gave us secure entry through the enemy's prepared defences. We learned later that infantry of the 21st Panzer Division arrived next morning to take over the defences from their Italian allies, but they came twelve hours too late.

Although we had won a footing, the enemy still held high ground on either side of the pass, giving him observation for his artillery, and during the following days our troops were heavily shelled by a large concentration of enemy guns.

On 23 March Eighth Army's bridgehead on the Mareth Line was lost after a heavy German counter-attack, and General Montgomery decided to switch his main thrust to reinforce success on our front. The 10th Corps, including the 1st Armoured Division, was sent to join us. While they were making a three-day approach march through the desert, plans were hurried on to stage an attack as soon as the 1st Armoured Division arrived. To gain observation and gun positions a series of operations on both flanks was carried out. One of these was a brilliant attack at sunset on 24 March by the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment and Nottinghamshire Yeomanry of 8th Armoured Brigade, with most effective co-operation from massed artillery and RAF fighter-bombers. This not only resulted in the capture of high ground on the left flank where German 88-millimetre guns had been sited, but also gained important observation points for our artillery.

Meanwhile we were making our plan to break through his defences. It was to be carried out in three phases:

  • Phase 1: The capture of a mountain peak on our right flank to deny enemy observation of our assembly areas for attack.

  • Phase 2: Blitz attack by New Zealand Corps to force a gap to El Hamma.

  • Phase 3: Passing of 1st Armoured Division through the gap to capture El Hamma.

Phase 1 was carried out brilliantly by the 21st (Auckland) Battalion in the early hours of the morning of the 26th, when vital ground was taken in a moonlight attack.

Phase 2, which was given the code-name ‘Supercharge II’ was planned to start on the afternoon of the 26th. As usual, every effort was made to make this main attack a surprise. The 8th Armoured Brigade withdrew by dark and remained camouflaged in the wadis behind Point 201. The 23rd (South Island) Battalion and 28th (Maori) Battalion of the 5th Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Kippenberger, and the 24th (Auckland) Battalion of the 6th Brigade assembled and lay up ready for the attack, while the 25th (Wellington) Battalion page 171 occupied a position on high ground on the left flank ready to advance with the other assault infantry. During the morning of 26 March the artillery of the 1st Armoured Division came in and by midday all preparations were complete. Our only anxiety was that the dust-storm might interfere with our air co-operation.

Meanwhile the enemy had also made his preparations and greatly reinforced his forces in the gap. The 21st Panzer Division had been joined by the German 164th Light Division, and on the day of the attack the 15th Panzer Division had been switched to our front from the Mareth Line.

At three o'clock on 26 March, as I drove up the valley in my tank, all was quiet except for occasional shellfire. There was no unusual movement or sign of coming attack. Exactly half an hour later, the first squadrons of the RAF roared overhead and relays of Spitfires, Kitty-bombers, and tank-busters swept over the enemy positions giving the greatest measure of air support ever seen by our army. At four o'clock 200 field and medium guns opened their bombardment on a front of 5000 yards. In an instant the attack developed and 150 tanks and three battalions of infantry appeared as from nowhere, advancing in the natural smokescreen provided by the dust-storm. It was a most awe-inspiring spectacle of modern warfare. The roar of bombers and fighters ahead of our advance merged with our barrage of bursting shells. Following close behind this intense barrage as it advanced came waves of Sherman tanks, carriers, and infantry and sappers on foot, preceded by three squadrons of Crusader tanks. Behind New Zealand Corps, coming down the forward slopes just in the rear of our front line, were 150 tanks of the 1st Armoured Division, followed by their Motor Brigade in lorries, advancing in nine columns.

Hitherto all our big attacks had been by moonlight, and although the enemy was expecting us to attack we again achieved surprise by attacking in daylight.

Without check our armour swept through to the final objective, a depth of 6000 yards. Enemy tanks were destroyed or driven back, Anti-tank guns and artillery were overrun or captured. Meanwhile our infantry battalions, moving behind the armour, attacked the remaining enemy strongpoints, and fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place to clear the objectives and secure the high ground on both flanks. By dusk all enemy resistance had been overcome, except for the high ground at Point 209 and a strongpoint outside the left flank where the German garrisons still held out. During the night the 24th (Auckland) Battalion attacked and cleared the left flank, taking a large number of prisoners.

page 172

By moonlight on the night of the 26th, Phase 3 was completed when the 1st Armoured Division was launched from our bridgehead. Next morning they had reached the outskirts of El Hamma.

All day on the 27th mopping up of the enemy garrison continued. At Point 209 a bitter fight raged between the Maori Battalion and the 2nd Battalion of the 433rd Panzer Grenadier Regiment, which finally ended by remnants of the German garrison, complete with commanding officer, surrendering.

The capture of the defile was a decisive defeat for the enemy and a triumph for our co-ordinated attack by tanks and infantry with powerful air and artillery support. It is true to say that all three German divisions as well as the Italian divisions opposed to us were severely mauled. A great many enemy killed and wounded were left on the battlefield and between 5000 and 6000 prisoners were taken, many being Germans from the Afrika Korps. Over forty tanks and a great many guns, MT, and all kinds of equipment were destroyed or captured. But the most important result of the battle was that the Mareth Line became untenable, and heavy casualties, which further frontal assaults would have involved, were avoided.

As soon as all resistance had ceased in the defile, New Zealand Corps, led by the King's Dragoon Guards, New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, and 8th Armoured Brigade, fanned out north-east and east towards the coast road. Many prisoners were taken, including two battalions of Italian infantry who surrendered with all their equipment. The 8th Armoured Brigade dispersed the last rearguard of the 15th Panzer Division, knocking out four more tanks and three 88-millimetre guns, and Gabes and El Hamma fell into our hands.

The battle was the hardest since Alamein and we have suffered inevitable casualties. I would like you to know that as usual in these wide desert moves our fully equipped surgical teams were with us, together with every possible facility for looking after our wounded, who were then flown out by air ambulance to our Base hospitals in Tripoli and Egypt.

Once again the officers and men of your Division displayed the fighting qualities that are now expected of them. Our staff and Divisional organisation and all our services worked smoothly and carried out most efficiently the additional responsibilities of a Corps. The exploits of units and individuals cannot be described in so short a report as this, but many of these will become known when immediate awards for gallantry on the battlefield are published. I know that the officers and men of the New Zealand Division would wish me to pay tribute here to our comrades of the British and Allied units who formed half of the New Zealand Corps. Our success was due in no small measure to the gallant fighting of the British armoured page 173 units. Nor do we forget General Leclerc's Fighting French and the detachment of the Royal Greek Army who covered our assembly in the early stages and held our right flank secure during the battle. Last but not least we owe a great debt to our comrades in the Allied Air Forces. The battle here is by no means over, but I can assure the people at home that, equipped and trained as we are, the New Zealand Division and all the British and Allied formations with us are confident of a victorious conclusion to the campaign in North Africa.

1 Brigadier C. B. C. Harvey.