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Bardia to Enfidaville

The Outflanking Problem

page 155

The Outflanking Problem

The problem now confronting Eighth Army was to force the Mareth Line and advance on Sfax, the next useable port, and the next area with useful landing grounds. The line had been built by the French in pre-war years to meet possible Italian threats from Tripolitania. In the coastal plain, here from ten to 15 miles wide, it ran immediately behind the line of Wadi Zigzaou from Zarat to Touati, the wadi being a natural anti-tank obstacle with sheer banks reaching in places a height of seventy feet. This stretch was moreover covered along the whole length by concrete and steel pillboxes and emplacements; and these defences, which were in existence before the war, had in recent months been strengthened by anti-tank ditches, wire and minefields. From Touati the line swung south-west to a point just south of Toujane, and then north-west through the Matmata Hills towards Djebel Melab. In the hills the nature of the country was relied on for defence, and there were few artificial aids.

In pre-war days it was considered that the Mareth Line could not be outflanked, because the Dahar was thought to be impassable for mechanical transport. In 1938 a French lorried force carried out an exercise to determine whether such an operation was possible, and came to the conclusion that it was not. But since 1938 the motor vehicle had improved enormously, particularly in the introduction of four-wheel drive; and most of the MT in Eighth Army was of this type. Tracked vehicles would also make light of difficulties that had stopped the pre-war lorry. Moreover, Eighth Army was by now expert in desert movement, so that there was every justification for the belief at Army Headquarters that the Dahar was passable and an outflanking move a possibility.

Rommel was never in any doubt about this, and on 10 February in an appreciation prepared for the Fuehrer, indicated clearly that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to hold off both a frontal attack and a large-scale outflanking attack via Tebaga Gap, particularly if these were combined with a southwards thrust from Gafsa. Hence he much preferred a position in the Gabes Gap, where the flanks rested on either the impassable Chotts or the sea. He had hammered away at this ever since the retreat from Alamein, but without avail, and had to be content with getting his troops back into the Mareth Line. He was no longer in command when the line was attacked, but all turned out as he had foretold, and the position in the Gabes Gap was taken up too late and was stormed by the Eighth Army within a week of making contact.

page 156

More than this, Rommel regarded the Gabes Gap position merely as a better alternative than Mareth for the defence of southern Tunisia. He had insisted until as late as 3 March, when the proposal was rejected in both Rome and Berlin, that the only chance the Axis had to retain a front in Africa was to offer limited delays at both Mareth and Gabes Gap, and to concentrate for protracted defence in the Enfidaville line. From this area the best troops, at least, could be evacuated to Europe. When he visited Hitler on 10 March he renewed his argument without success, but managed to convince Hitler that the Gabes Gap was a sounder defensive position than Mareth. Kesselring was consequently ordered to move the Spezia and Pistoia Divisions to the Gabes Gap for work there, to relieve 164 Light Division about Matmata by Centauro Division, the former to stiffen the Italian units in the Mareth Line, and to employ Trieste Division to watch for movement from Gafsa. But Kesselring did not agree! The Comando Supremo was not informed, so that although Kesselring had passed the orders on to von Arnim, who tried to implement them, Messe refused to comply without instructions from Rome. He believed that this was just a back-door method of forcing the Axis troops back to Enfidaville. However, under pressure, Messe agreed on 14 March to release Spezia and Pistoia Divisions, but by the 16th Kesselring had prevailed upon Hitler to change his mind and these divisions were ordered back to their former positions in the Mareth Line. It was a process that could not fail to aggravate the tensions that already existed between the Axis partners.

But within limits, Rommel did his best to make things difficult for Eighth Army. For as long as he could he defended the passes into the Dahar from the area round Foum Tatahouine, but the Axis forces were scanty and in the outcome were easily driven away by 4 Light Armoured Brigade. From there they went to swell the forces holding the Tebaga Gap, where some attempt had been made to prepare defences. The work had started some time before, indeed as early as 1941, but from air photographs the defences seemed to be patchy, and to include only short lengths of anti-tank ditch, a few weapon pits and emplacements, and some stretches of wire. The line was not continuous, had no depth and could not impose more than some slight delay on an attacker.

Steps were taken also to defend other crossings of the Matmata Hills from the Dahar back to the coast via the road through Ksar el Hallouf, and via the road through Tamezred and Matmata. Nervousness about these roads persisted for some days after the page 157 battle had started, with some reason, for consideration had been given to using the French to open these passes from the west, and eventually 4 Indian Division was directed on Matmata from the east.

The outflanking operation had been in Montgomery's mind for some months, but before making final plans it was necessary to discover a practicable route into the Dahar at a point well clear of the Mareth Line, and whether in fact the Dahar was passable. While at Marble Arch in December 1942, the LRDG was instructed to reconnoitre the area early in January, and T1 Patrol, under Captain Wilder,1 crossed into Tunisia south of Nalut on 12 January, the first troops of Eighth Army to do so. About 30 miles south-west of Foum Tatahouine they found a pass through the hills into the Dahar, later known as Wilder's Gap. Wilder's reconnaissance did not penetrate very far, but a later reconnaissance under Lieutenant Tinker2 went north on 27 January to Djebel Tebaga and examined the Tebaga Gap, confirming that the going throughout was suitable for a force of all arms.3 During his reconnaissance the LRDG base camp at Ksar Rhilane was shot up by enemy aircraft and considerable damage was done. This action was the first of a number which showed the enemy's nervousness about operations over this route.

But the last doubts had been dispersed, and it was now known that the route was a practicable one, and that any force in the Dahar could be supplied from Medenine by way of Wilder's Gap. Eighth Army had in 2 NZ Division a formation already well trained in long desert moves.

Montgomery had moved Leclerc's Force (now known as ‘L’ Force) forward from Nalut to Ksar Rhilane, where it operated during the Battle of Medenine.4 Here on 10 March it was suddenly attacked by an enemy force of armoured cars, artillery and aircraft. ‘L’ Force stood firm, and helped by the Desert Air Force drove off the attackers and inflicted severe losses on them. It was a spirited performance and ensured protection to the Dahar south of Ksar Rhilane, but showed again the enemy's sensitivity.

1 Lt-Col N. P. Wilder, DSO; Waipukurau; born NZ 29 Mar 1914; farmer; CO 2 NZ Div Cav, 1944; wounded 14 Sep 1942.

2 Lt-Col R. A. Tinker, MC, MM, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born NZ 13 Apr 1913; driver; now Regular soldier; Chief of Staff, Southern Military District.

3 Tinker pushed right through the Chotts to Gafsa and on 2 February made contact with troops from First Army.

4 See p. 132.