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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

The Main Assault

The Main Assault

The plan to break through the enemy defences was in three phases: the capture of a hill feature, Point 184, on our right flank to deny the enemy observation of our concentration for the attack; an attack by NZ Corps to force a gap; and the passing through the gap of 1 Armoured Division to capture El Hamma.

The first phase was carried out in the early morning of 26 March when 21 Battalion in a moonlight attack took Point 184 with slight casualties. During the morning of 26 March the artillery of 1 Armoured Division arrived and went into position beside the New Zealand units already assembled. By midday all preparations were complete. A dust-storm was blowing into the faces of the enemy. At 3.30 p.m. squadrons of the RAF swept over enemy positions, giving the greatest close air support ever seen in the desert. Half an hour later 200 field and medium guns opened up a bombardment on a front of 5000 yards. In an instant the attack developed, and 150 tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade and three New Zealand infantry battalions advanced in the natural ‘smoke’ screen provided by the dust-storm. Behind the assault of 2 NZ Division came the tanks of page 431 1 Armoured Division, followed by its motorised infantry in nine columns of trucks. As General Freyberg later described the action, ‘it was a most awe-inspiring spectacle of modern warfare.’

Without a check the armour swept on in the centre to the final objective—a depth of 6000 yards. Furious hand-to-hand fighting took place to clear the objectives and the high ground on both flanks, but by dusk all enemy resistance had been overcome except for some posts on the left flank and important high ground on Point 209 to the right. Here the Maoris were fighting bitterly with a battalion of Panzer Grenadiers. Throughout the night the deadly struggle continued in an action in which Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu1 won the VC and lost his life. The foothold established and retained during the night enabled the Maoris finally to gain possession of Point 209 late next afternoon.

During the same night 24 Battalion cleared the left flank, and 1 Armoured Division carried out the third phase of the attack by moving through the gap made by 2 NZ Division even before the flanks were finally cleared. This thrust took the tanks through to the outskirts of El Hamma. On 27 and 28 March the capture of the Tebaga Gap was completed, and leading troops of the New Zealand Corps fanned out north-east and east towards the coast road north of Gabes behind the Mareth line. This line then became untenable, and during the night of 27–28 March the enemy evacuated the Mareth defences. The decisive defeat of the enemy at Tebaga Gap cost him many men and much material, and the turning of the Mareth line marked the beginning of the end for him in Tunisia.

1 2 Lt M. N. Ngarimu, VC; born NZ 7 Apr 1918; shepherd; killed in action 27 Mar 1943.