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Bardia to Enfidaville

The Enemy

The Enemy

During the morning of 26 March the enemy plans for the formal withdrawal from the Mareth Line were settled, although apparently the Italian formations in the line made it more difficult by beating page 228 the pistol and then demanding that the Germans cover their withdrawal. (Memories of the retreat from Alamein were still bitter ones.) There had been some idea of taking up an intermediate position on Wadi Zerkine, some six miles in the rear, but the final decision was to go straight back to a line in front of Gabes, the first stage to be on the night 26–27 March.

The loss of Point 184 early on 26 March was enough to cause part of 15 Panzer Division to be sent forward to strengthen the German left flank, but while the enemy was still taking steps to remedy this defeat, the afternoon attack burst on him with staggering force, and for the first time in the period covered in this volume there are clear signs of disorganisation and even panic. The opening air attacks were in themselves most effective. On the front of 21 Panzer Division traffic to and from the fighting line became impossible, and the artillery of 164 Light Division lost more than half its guns. There was a frantic appeal for help from the air, but by 6 p.m. not a single Axis aircraft had been seen by 21 Division.

On that division's front the position at dark was not bad, as it had not been directly attacked, and Point 209 on its right was still holding out. The strength of the NZ Corps' attack came as a surprise to 164 Light, whose communications had already been dislocated by the blitz attack; but despite the knowledge that a page 229 wide penetration had been made on its front, its commander, von Liebenstein—who also commanded the whole Tebaga front—took steps to restore the situation, including bringing the engineer battalion into the firing line. He then decided that 164 Light would fight it out on the right, while a combination of 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions on the left counter-attacked against the right flank of the advancing NZ Corps.

black and white plans of military operation

liebenstein group positions, 27 march, showing advance by 1 armoured division and counter-attack by 15 panzer — a trace from enemy records

But the results of 1 Armoured Division's penetration at midnight and later were catastrophic, and the whole front, at least as far as 164 Light Division was concerned, collapsed. But again von Liebenstein did all he could to restore the situation by placing a large concentration of anti-aircraft guns astride the track to El Hamma to stop the British tanks. These guns did not open fire, because they had never expected tanks to push ahead in the dark and took them for German. Had they opened fire, it might have seriously affected 1 Armoured Division's advance, but on the other hand might have only increased the confusion in the German ranks—a confusion that was certainly made no less by the appearance of British tanks passing through the divisional headquarters. One enemy battery was actually overrun by our tanks and was wiped out.

After what must have been a period of great tension among the various commanders and staffs, it became obvious that 164 Division was in no state to stand and fight any further, and must break clear; so an immediate withdrawal was ordered to the south-west of El Hamma, where a centre of resistance would be organised to cover the withdrawal of forces from Mareth. The 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance Units, which all this time had been north-west of Djebel Tebaga, were ordered to move at once to the defile south-west of El Hamma, and a garrison which surprisingly was still at Kebili was withdrawn. From far and near the various commanders—Bayerlein at Liaison Headquarters and von Liebenstein at 164 Light Division—began to collect units and bits of units to form a new line. It was a remarkable effort of improvisation and of restoring order out of near-chaos—particularly as 164 Division was short of MT, and some of the troops had to walk back across Djebel Tebaga.

One ripple of the disorganisation was that II/433 Panzer Grenadier Regiment on Point 209 was cut off from communication with its own division, and was transferred to the command of 21 Panzer with which it had kept touch. The 21st Panzer Division was not much affected on its own front by the general upset, but its tanks were well spread and the breakthrough threatened to surround and cut off much of the armour remaining to it. What can only be called a sauve-qui-peut instruction was sent out to the tanks, but in the end some sort of order was restored.

page 230

The following is an extract from 21 Panzer Division's war diary for 27 March:

0001 hrs {i.e., midnight 26–27 March}: Report received that enemy tanks were advancing 2 km south of Div Battle HQ.

0015 hrs: The G 1 decided to move battle HQ. The move had to be made in a hurry, as the enemy tanks had advanced to a point level with Div Battle HQ and were spraying the area right and left of the track with fire. The Ops staff like many other German units, took advantage of the heavy sand-storm and disengaged from the enemy unseen, moving parallel to the enemy advance.

The only hope was that at first light 15 Panzer Division, now complete after its move, would be able to counter-attack and relieve the pressure, but at what must have been a tense conference at 8 p.m. the commander of 8 Panzer Regiment of 15 Panzer Division reported that he had only ten runners.

Strangely enough, 21 Panzer Division reported that it was 4 Indian Division that had attacked—possibly the Maoris were mistaken for Indian troops. At this time 4 Indian Division was no farther north than Toujane.