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Bardia to Enfidaville

Some Thoughts on Medenine

Some Thoughts on Medenine

Rommel has little to say about the Battle of Medenine, but his remarks are of some weight: ‘The attack began extraordinarily well, but soon came up against strong British positions in hilly country, protected by mines and anti-tank guns…. Attack after attack was launched, but achieved no success…. it soon became clear that the attack had failed and there was nothing more to be done about it…. The attack had bogged down in the break-in stage and the action never had a chance of becoming fluid. The British commander had grouped his forces extremely well and had completed his preparations with remarkable speed. In fact the attack had been launched about a week too late…. We had suffered tremendous losses, including forty tanks totally destroyed. But the cruellest blow was the knowledge that we had been unable to interfere with Montgomery's preparations. A great gloom settled over us all. The Eighth Army's attack was now imminent and we had to face it. For the Army Group to remain in Africa was now plain suicide.’1

page 152

The last few sentences show Rommel's views, which he had already voiced several times, and was to voice again more vigorously to both Mussolini and Hitler within a few days, for this was Rommel's last battle in North Africa. He departed on sick leave on 9 March, and knew that he would not be coming back. His two years of campaigning in North Africa did not end on a high note. Indeed, for him it ended in near disaster.

The German attack at Medenine was virtually a straightforward charge against our line, with little subtlety, with only a weak flank attack, and with practically no reconnaissance beforehand. The war diaries of all three panzer divisions show that there was little if any co-ordination by Rommel, and in fact the renewal of the attack on a general scale in the afternoon was arranged by the three divisional commanders themselves through personal and radio discussion. Having launched the attack, Rommel seems merely to have looked on and almost to have expected the worst from the outset. Like a ghost from the past, one can see Napoleon at Waterloo standing at his side.

All three divisions speak repeatedly of heavy and devastating shellfire. Tanks were blinded and there could be no hope of advance unless the British guns were neutralised. At one critical stage Headquarters 21 Panzer Division was so heavily shelled that it was out of action for half an hour. It is of some interest to read that the German sound-ranging and flash-spotting sections had no success in locating the British guns.

The 15th Panzer Division admitted a loss of twenty-four tanks and 21 Panzer Division over twenty, while 10 Panzer Division lost about seven or eight. Thirtieth Corps counted fifty-two enemy tanks destroyed, so that the figures are for once in agreement. It was one-third of the enemy's strength in armour, a crippling loss. Enemy prisoners, however, amounted to only eighty-three.

About 6 p.m., acting on mistaken information that 10 Panzer Division had reached Metameur, Rommel planned to move 15 Panzer Division across to the right (south) during the night and resume the attack next morning; but when the error was discovered he ordered a general withdrawal.

The Allied victory had been due to anti-tank defence in depth supported by massed field and medium artillery, a conclusive answer to the armoured thrust. Only one squadron of armour was engaged, without loss. Good concealment minimised the effects of enemy fire against our artillery, so that little help was possible for the enemy armour. And good concealment also made our losses of page break page 153 infantry very small. Brigadier Weir, responsible for much of the whole artillery programme, later emphasised that Eighth Army, for the first time, had good observation.

colour map of Gabes area

Outflanking the Mareth Line

Earlier in this chapter it has been explained that Montgomery regarded the Medenine battle only as an incident, albeit an annoying one, which occurred while preparations for his next offensive were under way. He did not change those plans because of the victory. Some commanders—Rommel for example—would have jumped at the opportunity of knocking out an already reeling enemy, following up with every man, gun, tank, and aircraft to storm through the Mareth Line. Such tactics are spectacular, and sometimes successful. But it was sounder and surer to delay a little and complete preparations before striking with full strength, and this was the course Montgomery followed.

The part of 2 NZ Division in the battle was not great, for the severe fighting took place farther north where forty-seven enemy tanks were destroyed. But the Division by establishing itself so quickly in a defensive line which was a model of its kind made a worthy contribution.

Casualties in the Division from 4 to 10 March were 1 officer and 6 other ranks killed, and 2 officers and 39 other ranks wounded. Most of these were the result of air action, for effective concealment had minimised, indeed almost nullified, the enemy's ground fire.

At Medenine the Germans used nebelwerfers for the first time against Eighth Army. New Zealand observers both heard and saw them, but they seemed to be firing at extreme range, and there is no record of their inflicting any loss on the Division.

1 Rommel Papers, pp. 415–16.