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Bardia to Enfidaville

The Main Mareth Front

page 192

The Main Mareth Front

Operations had not gone as planned on the front of 30 Corps. Although the desired penetration had been achieved, the enemy had been able to counter-attack. The attack commenced at 10.30 p.m. on the 20th, at which time 50 (Northumbrian) Division and 23 Armoured Brigade passed through 51 (H) Division between Mareth village and the sea. The initial task was to cross Wadi Zigzaou, a formidable obstacle with its natural hazards intensified by the enemy's minefields, ditches and wire. The enemy line was held in the main by Italians, but with 90 Light Division strengthening certain sectors, and with 15 Panzer Division in immediate reserve.

The attackers crossed the wadi in places, though with difficulty, and even then the deep and steep-sided nature of the wadi, and the enfilade fire encountered, sweeping easily across the narrow front, made the foothold on the far bank precarious. The gains were held on 21 March, and were extended during the night 21–22, but on 22 March there was heavy rain and the wadi crossing became more difficult than ever, and for armour and wheeled vehicles wellnigh impossible. Bad weather prevented the air force from interfering with the enemy's preparations for a counter-attack, which was duly delivered by 15 Panzer Division in the afternoon of 22 March. Much of the bridgehead was recaptured by the enemy, for conditions made it impossible to get more than a handful of tanks and anti-tank guns across the wadi. By 2 a.m. on 23 March it was known that the results of the counter-attack were serious. But, on the other hand, Montgomery considered that the enemy was now committed to offensive action on his eastern flank.

He therefore took the decision which has been given in the message quoted above. It was intended that the move of Headquarters 10 Corps and 1 Armoured Division should start after dark on 23 March, in the hope that a fresh offensive could be launched at Tebaga on 25 March. At the same time 30 Corps, strengthened by 7 Armoured Division from 10 Corps and by 4 Indian Division from Army Reserve, was to launch a new attack in the centre towards Toujane and Zeltene, in an area beyond the artificial defences of the Mareth Line, where, in effect, a gap had already been left by the departure of 164 Light Division to Tebaga. One advantage of this attack was that the lateral road from Medenine through the Hallouf Pass would be opened and the two wings of the army brought closer together. The 4th Indian Division was entrusted with this special attack, to commence after dark on 23 March. Thirtieth Corps page 193 would then have 50, 51 and 7 Armoured Divisions to hold the enemy in the Mareth Line proper, while 4 Indian Division undertook what Montgomery calls a ‘short hook’ round the line.

By the evening of 23 March all troops were withdrawn across Wadi Zigzaou and the whole of the bridgehead given up. Tenth Corps, consisting of Corps Headquarters, 1 Armoured Division (2 Armoured Brigade and 7 Motor Brigade), 69 Medium Regiment, RA, with corps engineers and anti-aircraft artillery, moved from Medenine soon after midnight on 23–24 March, taking the direct road to Foum Tatahouine. With it moved 36 Survey Battery, less the detachments already with NZ Corps.