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Bardia to Enfidaville

Tebaga in Retrospect

Tebaga in Retrospect

The initial attack of the Mareth/Tebaga operations took place at Mareth on 20 March. By 27 March, one week later, the enemy was in full retreat, in considerable disorganisation, and in no fit state to make another effective stand until, over a fortnight later, he was among the hills at Enfidaville. It is certainly not easy, and rarely is it safe, to prophesy with certainty the outcome on the field of battle. Nevertheless, it is probable that this victory could have been achieved more swiftly and could have been even more damaging to the enemy.

General Freyberg's handling of the Tebaga Gap operations in the early stage now seems curiously hesitant, and there is no doubt that a quick thrust through the weak defences there on 21 and 22 March would have yielded rich dividends, with highly favourable repercussions at Mareth. The risk had been correctly assessed and the New Zealand Corps should have been well able to deal with any enemy reaction beyond the Gap. Delay at Tebaga allowed the enemy to offer far more resistance to 30 Corps than the Eighth Army plan envisaged.

The delay, though, was the product of several factors, none of them inconsiderable. For one thing, the GOC thought that the 30 Corps attack was on much too narrow a front, and from the outset was therefore dubious of a quick success at Mareth.

Manpower, always a matter which weighed heavily with General Freyberg, was another factor. The latest draft of reinforcements—the first for fifteen months—had been absorbed, yet the Division was still short of 2400 men in an establishment of 16,000. This compared favourably enough with other divisions, both Allied and enemy, but the 2 NZEF was a national force whose fate had already trembled in the balance, and further serious losses could lead to its entire withdrawal from the Middle East theatre.

Further, if the New Zealand Corps emerged at once beyond the Gap, could the GOC rely on his own armour? The course of events at Sidi Rezegh, Minqar Qaim, Ruweisat and El Mreir was not yet page 250 overshadowed by more recent successes, evidence was still freely available that the 88-millimetre gun continued to dominate the battlefield, and at the end of a long and partially unprotected line of communication there was still an element of chance that the armour, a brittle arm, could suffer crippling losses at the hands of the concentrated panzer divisions, depleted though they were.

The burden of decision rested squarely on General Freyberg's shoulders, and he seems to have kept it there, for no record has been discovered that he discussed the problem with any of his subordinate commanders, although of course there was no call on him to do so. Nor apparently did he warn Eighth Army of any conditions likely to impede the rapid execution of his task, an action which, in the circumstances, it might have been wiser to take, although it is uncertain whether he realised the harmful effects of delay at Tebaga. Altogether, the combined circumstances of the occasion seem to have exercised a cramping effect on his initiative.

An early, full and vigorous thrust at Tebaga would almost certainly have achieved success both at Tebaga and on the 30 Corps front. Failure to provide this created a situation in which the Army Commander was bound to intervene.

The breakthrough operation at Tebaga, once mounted, created a new standard in co-operation between infantry and armour and the Air Force. It closely resembled the Germans' own ‘blitzkrieg’ and was indeed more closely integrated, and thus more damaging, than the thrusts which had decimated and scattered the Eighth Army earlier in the war. The terrain confined the power of the thrust almost entirely to the floor of the Gap, and here the Air Force concentrated its close support, strafing and bombing, while the artillery barrage, weighty and devastating, pounded irresistibly to the objective and beyond. The path of the armour and the infantry was well paved, but they, in any case, were not to be denied. A new pattern was set for the future, and a new standard produced by which co-operation between ground and air could henceforward be measured.

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