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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Turning the Mareth Line

page 425

Turning the Mareth Line

Eighth Army continued with its plans to take the Mareth line. A frontal assault was to be made on the line itself and an outflanking movement through the desert from an assembly area, 80 miles to the south. For this outflanking role the New Zealand Corps was formed, consisting of 2 NZ Division, 8 British Armoured Brigade, 1 Battalion Buffs, King's Dragoon Guards, British medium, field, and anti-tank regiments, and the Free French under General Leclerc, who had brought his force from Chad in Central Africa in a remarkable desert trek.

The new outflanking operation closely resembled the left hook around Agheila. It involved moves by night of 27,000 men and 6000 vehicles, tanks, and guns to an assembly area in the desert, and a race to an objective over 150 miles away across little-known and difficult country. Although the going was extremely bad and the country ill suited for a flanking movement, the enemy by this stage, well aware of our mobility, was clearly nervous about his flank. Enemy reconnaissance aircraft were over each day, and there was no doubt that another left hook was expected. There was little chance, therefore, of achieving strategic surprise, but it was considered that tactical surprise could be gained by dashing in quickly and delivering a sudden violent attack.

On 11 March the New Zealand Corps began a secret move to the assembly area in the desert. The force first moved back to Ben Gardane, which the New Zealanders had passed on their first advance to Medenine; thence it made a long sweep to the south to the assembly point 30 miles south-west of the hill village of Foum Tatahouine. The whole force was self-contained with eleven days' food, water, and ammunition and with petrol for 350 miles. For six days the force continued to assemble in the desert, and by 18 March it was complete.

The New Zealand Corps was to move north as if directed against the Matmata Hills, which constituted the right flank of the main Mareth defences. Then it was to swing west again and race for the Tebaga defile. It was known that there was a defensive line covering this gateway to Gabes, and it was also known that two German panzer divisions were in mobile reserve ready to meet a thrust from the Americans in the rear, a breakthrough at Mareth, or any threat on the desert flank. Speed, therefore, was of the utmost importance.

There was a sandy track to Wilder's Gap,1 and thence rolling sandy desert, covered by low scrub, bounding the dunes of the Grande Erg Orientale. The way led between this impassable waste on the west and mountains on the right, and when not soft sand page 426 became rough stone outcrop with very steep, narrow, rocky wadis. Past the Roman Wall the going improved. Passage of most of this country was made possible only by the prior reconnaissance of the LRDG, and by the efforts of New Zealand engineers who used bulldozers to overcome blocks. Tracks were well marked by the Provost Company and were a great help to ambulance drivers. Nevertheless, most of the desert routes were quite unsuitable for the evacuation of seriously wounded men.

On the night of 19 March the Corps moved in close desert formation up to the line reached by General Leclerc's Free French forces. It was intended to lie up dispersed next day and advance by night. This would have coincided with General Montgomery's frontal assault on the Mareth line. At 7 a.m. on 20 March, however, General Freyberg was informed of movements of panzer units and advised that the force had already been detected; and he ordered the Corps to advance by daylight to rob the enemy of some hours in preparation time. During 20 March the Corps advanced in a mighty array across the undulating desert, but was slowed up by bad going and minefields. Enemy reconnaissance units fell back without fighting. The advance, held up by darkness, was resumed on 21 March, contact being made with the enemy in the afternoon. The New Zealand Corps then moved up and deployed, and by nightfall armour, artillery, and infantry were facing the enemy positions covering the gap. These positions, covered by a minefield, were astride the KebiliGabes road close to where it ran through the narrow valley between the precipitous Djebel Tebaga and the mountain country forming the right flank of the Mareth line. The strategic importance of this gap was recognised centuries ago, for the enemy defences were on the same line as an ancient wall built by the Romans to close the six-mile gap against the inroads of the barbarians.

At 10 p.m. on 21 March, in full moonlight, 6 Brigade attacked with 25 and 26 Battalions, engineers of 8 Field Company cleared gaps in the minefields, and Sherman tanks of 3 Royal Tank Regiment went through the gaps. The attack was brilliantly successful, the vital feature, Point 201, being taken—as well as 1500 Italian prisoners. The capture of Point 201 gave us an important wedge in the enemy's defences. Later it was learnt that infantry of 164 Division arrived next morning to take over the defences of Point 201 from their Italian allies—twelve hours too late.

During the afternoon of the 22nd there was intermittent shelling, and a shell landed close to a British truck which happened to be in 26 Battalion's area. Captain Rutherford, the RMO, ran over to see if anyone was hurt. While he was dressing the driver's wounds a page 427 second shell landed in practically the same spot and wounded Rutherford, who was later invalided to New Zealand.

Meanwhile, on the night of 20 March Eighth Army had launched its frontal attack in the north between the road and the sea. It met with initial success, a bridgehead being established, but this was lost on 22 and 23 March after a heavy German counter-attack. At this stage General Montgomery decided to switch his main thrust to reinforce the success which NZ Corps had already achieved, and 10 Corps, including 1 Armoured Division, was sent on the three-day approach march to Tebaga Gap. A blitz attack was then to be made on the defile.

1 Named after Captain N. P. Wilder, a New Zealand officer of the LRDG.