World War Two: Munda Trail (8); Griswold Takes Over

General Griswold at once concluded that he could not mount a large-scale offensive against Munda until he had received reinforcements and reorganized the Occupation Force. Estimating that four battalions of “Munda moles well dug in” faced him, he planned to keep “pressure on slant-eye,” and to gain more advantageous ground for an offensive, by using the 43rd Division in a series of local attacks. At the same time he would be getting ready for a full corps offensive to “crack Munda nut and allow speedy junction with Liversedge. In the rear areas, Griswold and his staff set to work to improve the system of supply and medical treatment.

The Attack on Bairoko

Meanwhile Colonel Liversedge, after taking Enogai and abandoning the trail block, was making ready to assault Bairoko. Liversedge’s operations against Bairoko were not closely co-ordinated with action on the Munda front. Upon assuming command Griswold directed Liversedge to submit daily reports, but radio communication between Liversedge and Occupation Force headquarters on Rendova had been poor. Curiously enough Liversedge’s signals from his Navy TBX radio could barely be picked up at Rendova, although the radio at Segi Point was able to receive them without much difficulty. As a result Liversedge had to send many messages through Segi Point to headquarters of Task Force 31 at Guadalcanal, from there to be relayed to Rendova, a slow process at best.

In the days following the fall of Enogai, Liversedge sent patrols out to cover Dragons Peninsula. They made contact with the Japanese only once between 12 and 17 July. Little information was obtained. “Ground reconnaissance,” wrote Liversedge, “. . . was by no means all it should have been.” Most patrols, he felt, were not aggressive enough, had not been adequately instructed by unit commanders, and were not properly conducted. “. . . some patrols were sent out in which the individual riflemen had no idea of where they were going and what they were setting out to find.”

There was always the problem of “goldbricking on the part of patrols who are inclined to keep their activity fairly close to their camp area. . . .” Patrols made “grave errors in distance and direction” and frequently were unobservant. Many returned from their missions unable to tell in what direction the streams flowed, whether there were fresh enemy tracks around a given stream, and the approximate dimensions of swamps they had passed through.

Prisoners might have supplied a good deal of information, but only two had been captured. Air photography, too, might have furnished Liversedge with data on strongpoints, gun emplacements, stores, and bivouac areas, but he complained that he had received practically no photos. One group of obliques received just before the landing at Rice Anchorage turned out to be pictures of marines landing at Segi Point. Thus, except for the map captured on 7 July, Liversedge had no sound information on the installations at Bairoko. He was aware only that the Japanese were digging in and preparing to resist. The Americans could only guess at Japanese strength at Bairoko, whither the survivors of the Japanese garrison at Enogai had gone. Harmon’s headquarters estimated that one Army infantry battalion plus two companies, some artillerymen, and part of the Kure 6th Special Naval Landing Force were defending Bairoko. The actual strength of the garrison is not clear. It consisted, however, of the 2nd Battalion, 45th Infantry, the 8th Battery, 6th Field Artillery (both of the 6th Division), and elements of the Kure 6th Special Naval Landing Force.

Liversedge had few more than three thousand men to use in the attack. The move of Colonel Schultz’s 3rd Battalion, 148th Infantry, to Triri and the 18 July landing of the 4th Marine Raider Battalion at Enogai gave him a force almost four battalions strong, although casualties and disease had reduced the three battalions that made the initial landing. M Company and the Antitank Platoon of the 3rd Battalion, 145th Infantry, were holding Rice Anchorage. The 1st and 4th Raider Battalions and L Company, 145th, were at Enogai. Schultz’s battalion and the remainder of the 3rd Battalion, 145th, were at Triri.

Liversedge called his battalion commanders together at 1500, 19 July, and issued oral orders for the Bairoko attack, which was to take place early next morning. The Raider battalions, advancing some three thousand yards southwest from Enogai along the Enogai-Bairoko trail, would make the main effort. One platoon of B Company, 1st Raider Battalion, was to create a diversion by advancing down the fifty-yard-wide sand-spit forming the west shore of Leland Lagoon. The 3rd Battalion, 148th, was to make a separate enveloping movement. Advancing southwest from Triri to the trail junction southeast of Bairoko, it was to swing north against the Japanese right flank. A and C Companies, 1st Marine Raider Battalion, and elements of the 3rd Battalion, 145th, formed the reserve at Enogai.

Late in the day the B Company platoon took landing craft from Enogai to the tip of the sandspit, went ashore, and moved into position for the next morning’s attack. The remainder of the attacking force stayed in bivouac. From 2000, 19 July, to 0500, 20 July, Japanese aircraft bombed and strafed Enogai, which as yet had no antiaircraft guns. No one was killed, but the troops had little rest.

The two Raider battalions started out of Enogai at 0800, 20 July, and within thirty minutes all units had cleared the village and were marching down the trail toward Bairoko. The 1st Raider Battalion (less two companies) led, followed by the 4th Battalion and regimental Headquarters. At 0730 Schultz’s battalion had left Triri on its enveloping march.

The Northern Landing Group was attacking a fortified position. A force delivering such an attack normally makes full use of all supporting services, arms, and weapons, but Liversedge’s men had little to support them. No one seems to have asked for naval gunfire. Liversedge, who had been receiving fairly heavy air support in the form of bombardments of Bairoko, is reported to have requested a heavy air strike to support his assauLieutenant His message reached the Guadalcanal headquarters of Admiral Mitscher, the Commander, Aircraft, Solomons, too late on the 19th for action next day.[N4] The marines definitely expected air support. The 4th Raider Battalion noted at 0900: “Heavy air strike failed to materialize.” 5 Artillery support was precluded by the fact that there was no artillery. Hindsight indicates that the six 81-mm. mortars of the 3rd Battalion, 145th Infantry, might have been used in general support of the attack, but these weapons remained with their parent battalion.

[N4: Major John N. Rentz, USMCR, Marines in the Central Solomons (Washington, 1952), p. 111. The XIV Corps G-3 Journal for 19 July contains a message from Liversedge, sent at 2235, 18 July, requesting a twelve-plane strike on 19 July, and a “large strike to stand by for July 20 A M and SBD’s to stand by for immediate call remainder of day.” XIV Corps headquarters replied that a “large strike stand by” for 20 July was “impracticable.” 5 4th Mar Raider Bn Special Action Rpt, Bairoko Harbor, New Georgia Opn, p. 3.

The Raiders advanced without meeting an enemy until 0955 when the 1st Battalion’s point sighted four Japanese. When the first shot was fired at 1015, B and D Companies, 1st Raider Battalion, deployed and moved forward. Heavy firing broke out at 1045. By noon the battalion had penetrated the enemy outpost line of resistance and was in the outskirts of Bairoko. When D Company, on the left, was halted by machine gun fire, Liversedge began committing the 4th Raider Battalion to the left of the 1st. Then D Company started moving again. Driving slowly but steadily against machine gun fire, it advanced with its flanks in the air beyond B Company until by 1430 it had seized a ridge about three hundred yards short of the shore of Bairoko Harbour. Liversedge ordered more units forward to cover D Company’s flank. These advances were made with rifle, grenade, and bayonet against Japanese pillboxes constructed of logs and coral, housing machine guns. The jungle overhead was so heavy that the Raiders’ 60-mm. mortars were not used. The platoon on the sandspit, meanwhile, was held up by a number of machine guns and was unable to reach the mainland to make contact with the main body.

So far the marines, by attacking resolutely, had made good progress in spite of the absence of proper support, but now 90-mm. mortar fire from Japanese positions on the opposite (west) shore of Bairoko Harbour began bursting around the battalion command posts and on D Company’s ridge. With casualties mounting, D Company was forced off the ridge. By 1500 practically the entire force that Liversedge had led out of Enogai was committed and engaged in the fire fight, but was unable to move farther under the 90-mm. mortar fire. Colonel Griffith, commanding the 1st Raider Battalion, regretted the absence of heavy mortars in the Marine battalions. Liversedge, at 1315, sent another urgent request for an air strike against the positions on the west shore of Bairoko Harbour, but, as Griswold told him, there could be no air strikes by Guadalcanal-based planes on such short notice. With all marine units in action, the attack stalled, and casualties increasing, Liversedge telephoned Schultz to ask if his battalion could make contact with the marines before dark. [N6] Otherwise, he warned, the attack on Bairoko would fail.

[N6: All men of Headquarters Company, 4th Raider Battalion, were engaged in carrying litter cases to the rear.]

Schultz’s battalion had marched out of Triri that morning in column of companies. Except for two small swamps, the trail was easy. By 1330 the battalion had traveled about 3,000 yards, passing some Japanese corpses and abandoned positions on the way, and reached the point where the Triri trail joined one of the Munda-Bairoko tracks. Here, about 2,500 yards south of Bairoko, the battalion swung north and had moved a short distance when the advance guard ran into an enemy position on high ground. Patrols went out to try to determine the location and strength of the Japanese; by 1530 Schultz was ready to attack. M Company’s 81-mm. mortars opened fire, but the rifle companies, attempting to move against machine guns, were not able to advance. One officer and one enlisted man of K Company were killed; two men were wounded. This was the situation at 1600 when Schultz received Liversedge’s call.

Schultz immediately told Liversedge that he could not reach the main body before dark. A few minutes later, the 1st Marine Raider Regiment’s executive officer, having been dispatched to Schultz to tell him to push harder, arrived at the battalion command post. According to the 3rd Battalion’s report, the executive agreed that contact could not be made before dark and he so informed Liversedge.

The group commander concluded that he had but one choice: to withdraw. He issued the order, and the marine battalions began retiring at 1700. Starting from the left of the line, they pulled back company by company. Machinegun and mortar fire still hit them, but the withdrawal was orderly. All uninjured men helped carry the wounded. The battalion retired about five hundred yards and set up a perimeter defense on the shore of Leland Lagoon. When L Company of the 145th came up from Enogai carrying water, ammunition, and blood plasma, it was committed to the perimeter. Construction of the defenses was impeded by darkness,but the task was completed and the hasty defenses were adequate to withstand some harassing Japanese that night.

Some of the walking wounded had been sent to Enogai in the late afternoon of the 20th, and at 0615 of the 21st more were dispatched. Evacuation of litter cases began at 0830, and an hour later a group of Corrigan’s natives came from Enogai to help. Carrying the stricken men in litters over the primitive trail in the heat was hard on the men and on the litter bearers. Liversedge therefore ordered that landing craft from Enogai come up Leland Lagoon and take the wounded back from a point about midway between Bairoko and Enogai. This evacuation was carried out, and by late afternoon, the withdrawal, which was covered by Allied air attacks against Bairoko, had been completed. All the marines were at Enogai, where they were joined by Schultz’s battalion, which had retired to Triri and come to Enogai by boat. The Raider battalions lost 46 men killed, 161 wounded. They reported counting 33 enemy corpses, but estimated that the total number of enemy dead was much higher.

Once again at Enogai, the Northern Landing Group resumed daily patrols over Dragons Peninsula.

Pressure on the Japanese

On the Munda front, meanwhile, the 169th and 172nd Regiments were engaged in their limited offensive to hold the Japanese in position and secure more high ground from which to launch the corps offensive that was to start on 25 July.

The 172nd Infantry

From 16 through 24 July the 172nd Infantry expanded the Laiana beachhead. It moved west about six hundred yards and established a front line that ran for about fifteen hundred yards inland from the beach near Ilangana. During this period it had the support of tanks for the first time. Reconnaissance had revealed some trails in front of the 172nd that the tanks could use. Therefore three M3 light tanks of the 9th Marine Defense Battalion were assigned to each of the 172nd’s battalions, and six riflemen were ordered to advance with and cover each tank.

In the zone of the 2nd Battalion, 172nd, on the beach, the tanks made good progress along a jeep trail on 16 July. But when they reached the trail’s end, their rate of advance slowed to about one mile an hour as logs, stumps, and trees caused constant backing, towing, and rerouting. About seventy-five yards beyond the 2nd Battalion’s front lines, in an area where artillery fire had partly cleared the vegetation, the tanks sighted Japanese pillboxes. They deployed into a wedge formation, then fired 37-mm. high explosive shells. As this fire cut down the underbrush other pillboxes became visible. Japanese machine gunners manning positions in grass shacks opened fire, but were immediately blasted by canister from the tanks.

Such heavy fire then struck the tanks that they were forced to close their turret hatches, but they found the source of much of the fire—a machine gun position at the base of a banyan tree. The marines shot at this position for some time, but as they killed one gunner, his replacement would bound forward from the rear, man the gun, and keep shooting until he was killed. At length the tanks destroyed the gun, drove the surviving crew members into a nearby pillbox, pulled up close, and demolished three pillboxes with short-range fire. Troops of the 2nd Battalion then moved forward to grenade the wreckage.

The three tanks operating with the 3rd Battalion, to the right of the 2nd, had less success, as the ridges in that zone were so steep that the tanks could not elevate or depress their guns enough to hit the enemy positions.

The destruction of the pillboxes near the shore gave the troops an opportunity to inspect the type of defenses they would have to overcome before they could take Munda. The pillboxes were not concrete, as had been feared, but were made of coconut logs and coral. From ten to twelve feet square, they had three or four layers of logs banked with six to eight feet of weathered coral. About ten feet from floor to ceiling, they were dug into the earth so that only two or three feet of pillbox projected above the ground. Each had several firing slits for riflemen as well as a firing platform for a heavy machine gun. Outside were foxholes among banyan and mahogany trees. Trenches connected all positions, which were well camouflaged. Besides employing terrain contours for concealment, the Japanese used earth, grass, vines, palm fronds, and leaves to such good effect that the American soldiers might receive fire from a pillbox and still not be able to see it. Soldiers of the 43rd Division remarked that the Japanese positions were easier to smell than see. As usual, the Americans reported the presence of many snipers in trees, but these reports had little basis in fact. No one ever seems to have actually seen one.

The tanks attacked again on the 17th, but lack of tank-infantry co-ordination hampered their efforts. The Marine tanks and the Army infantry had not trained together. Foot soldiers had no sure means of communicating with the tanks when they were closed up for action. Tank crews, with hatches closed, could see very little in the jungle. The tankers uttered the classic complaint that the riflemen did not give them proper support and protection, while the infantrymen claimed that the tanks did not always press forward to support them. Doubtless both accusations were based on truth.

Japanese antitank tactics, practically nonexistent at first, improved each day, for staff officers had hurried down from Rabaul to instruct Sasaki’s men in methods of dealing with tanks. The Japanese used mines, flame throwers, Molotov cocktails, and fuzed charges of TNT against the tanks, but apparently had no antitank guns. After two tanks were permanently disabled on 17-18 July, General Griswold withdrew the other tanks from the front to permit repairs. He ordered the 9th Marine Defense Battalion tank commander to reconnoiter for terrain suitable for tank action, and at the same time requested that the Tank Platoon of the 10th Marine Defense Battalion, then in the Russells, be sent to New Georgia.

Kelley Hill

In the 169th Infantry’s zone farther north, the 3rd Battalion’s seizure of Reincke Ridge was being exploited. The 2nd Battalion was able to capture the hill immediately north of Reincke Ridge, and on 15 July Major Joseph E. Zimmer, commanding the 1st Battalion, reconnoitered the high ground (Kelley Hill) four hundred yards southwest of Reincke Ridge in preparation for an attack.

At 0830 the next day, 16 July, the 155-mm. howitzers of the 136th Field Artillery Battalion and the 3rd Battalion’s mortars put fire on the objective. At the same time the 1st Battalion, fortified by hot coffee and doughnuts, passed through the 3rd Battalion’s lines and advanced to the attack. One platoon from C Company, carrying .30-caliber light machine guns, struck out down the west slope of Reincke Ridge and up the east slope of Kelley Hill, seized the crest, and set up machine guns to cover the advance of the battalion’s main body, which was to envelop Kelley Hill from the south. The whole effort was bloodless.

The battalion’s advance elements climbed the hill without meeting any opposition. They found only empty pillboxes and abandoned foxholes. By 1530 the entire battalion was on the ridge top. The men found they could look west and see the waters south of Munda Point, although the airfield was hidden from view. Because natives had formerly dug yam gardens on the ridge, there was an open area about 75 by 150 yards. Zimmer’s men, using Japanese positions when possible, started building an all-round defense in the clearing. Automatic rifles, machine guns, and M1903 and M1 rifles were posted on the line, with mortars in supporting positions in rear.

There was a brush with a Japanese patrol at 1650, and before dark, when the emplacements were still incomplete, Japanese artillery and mortar fire struck the battalion. Fourteen men died, including 1st Lieutenant John R. Kelley, in whose memory the hill was named. Just fifteen minutes after midnight part of the 3rd Battalion, 229th Infantry, now commanded by Captain Kojima, assaulted the hill from positions on Horseshoe Hill. Beaten off, Kojima tried twice more against the right (north) and rear (east) but failed to dislodge Zimmer’s battalion.

The 1st Battalion held to the ridge, but as day broke on 17 July the troops realized that their situation was not enviable. That the Japanese were still active was indicated by their resistance to an attempt by the 2nd Battalion to drive into the draw between Reincke Ridge and Kelley Hill. This attempt was beaten back. The 1st Battalion’s rations and ammunition were running low; the battalion surgeon had no medical supplies. And when Japanese machine guns fired on a party carrying twenty wounded men to the rear and forced it to return west to Kelley Hill, the men of the battalion knew that they were virtually isolated. Fortunately the telephone line to the regimental command post was still operating, and Major Zimmer was able to keep Colonel Holland informed on his situation. As the hot day wore on, the supply of water dwindled. Some men left their positions to drink from puddles in shell holes.

Eight of those who thus exposed themselves were wounded by Japanese riflemen. In midafternoon succor came. A party of South Pacific Scouts, accompanied by Capt. Dudley H. Burr, the regimental chaplain, escorted a supply party through to Kelley Hill. The party brought ammunition, rations, water, blood plasma, litters, and orders from Holland to hold the hill. The wounded were carried out. The unwounded on Kelley Hill, securely dug in, made ready to meet the Japanese night attack which they had reason to expect.

The Enemy Counterattacks

Up to now, Japanese ground troops had harried the Americans at night with local attacks, but had not attempted any large co-ordinated offensives. They had manned their defensive positions, fired at the American infantry, and had received bombs, shells, and infantry assaults without retaliating very actively. This quiescence, so different from enemy reactions during the Guadalcanal Campaign, puzzled the American commanders. General Sasaki was well aware that only offensive action would destroy the Allied forces on New Georgia, and he had brought the 13th Infantry to Munda from Kolombangara for that purpose.

Sasaki ordered the 13th, acting in concert with as much of the 229th Infantry as he could spare from the defenses east of Munda, to assemble on the upper reaches of the Barike, fall upon the Allied flank and rear, and destroy the whole force.7 The 13th Infantry, having completed its march from Bairoko, assembled on the upper Barike on 15 July. It claims to have attacked the 43rd Division’s right flank on that date, a claim that is not supported by the 43rd Division records. Two days later the 13th made ready to attack from the upper Barike.

In the afternoon of the 17th American patrols operating on the practically open right flank reported that an enemy column, 250-300 men strong, was moving eastward. A platoon from the 43rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop went out to ambush the column but failed to intercept it. It was obvious that the Japanese had some sort of offensive action in mind.

It was equally obvious that the Allied forces in front of Munda were in a vulnerable position. Their right flank was in the air; the front line positions were exposed to envelopment from the north. The Japanese reinforcement route from Bairoko was still open, and 43rd Division rear installations, strung out from Zanana to the front, were unguarded except for local security detachments.

Movement was slow along the Munda Trail; the track north from Laiana was not yet completed. It would thus be difficult to send speedy reinforcement to any beleaguered unit. A resolute, skillful attack by the 13th Infantry, such as Sasaki had planned, could destroy the 43rd Division’s rear installations, cut the line of communications from Zanana to the front, and if co-ordinated with the efforts of the 229th Infantry might surround the American regiments on the front lines.

Captain Kojima was ready to do his part. He had prepared another attack against Kelley Hill. At 0015, 18 July, Japanese machine guns north of Kelley opened fire. They covered the advance of riflemen who were attempting an assault against the west slope of Kelley Hill. The 1st Battalion fired at the Japanese infantry with all weapons that would bear, including two captured Japanese machine guns. Tracers from Kojima’s machine guns revealed their location, and 3rd and 1st Battalion mortar crews put their fire on the Japanese positions to the north. Kojima’s first attack failed. His men pulled back, regrouped, and tried again, this time from the north. They succeeded in seriously threatening the line. The broken ground on the north slope of Kelley Hill provided some cover from the fire of one of the machine guns that was supposed to sweep the area. The Japanese, taking advantage of the dead space, crawled within grenade-throwing range of the northern line of the 1st Battalion. But mortar fire killed some of them and forced the others to withdraw. The 1st Battalion reported counting 102 Japanese bodies on the slopes of Kelley Hill after daybreak. A predawn attack by the 2nd Battalion, 229th Infantry, against the beach positions of the 3rd Battalion, 103rd Infantry, in the 172nd’s sector, was readily repulsed.

Elsewhere on the night of 17-18 July the Japanese caused alarms and uproar. They launched simultaneous raids against the engineer and medical bivouacs and the 43rd Division command post at Zanana. Near one of the Barike bridges they ambushed a party taking wounded of the 169th to the rear, then attacked the hasty perimeter set up by the party and killed several of the wounded.

The attacks against the engineer and medical bivouacs were easily beaten off, but at the command post the raiders’ first onslaught carried them through the security detachment’s perimeter and into the communication center where they ripped up telephone wires and damaged the switchboard before being chased off. The division artillery liaison officer, Capt. James Ruhlen, called for supporting fire from the 136th Field Artillery Battalion. Adjusting by sound, he put fire on a nearby hill where the Japanese were thought to be emplacing mortars and laid a tight box barrage around the command post. This fire was continued throughout the night. During the action Lieutenant Col. Elmer S. Watson, 43rd Division G-3, was wounded. Major Sidney P. Marland, Jr., his assistant, took his place.

Shortly after receiving word of the attack,General Griswold ordered a battery of artillerymen from Kokorana to Zanana to protect the command post, and on his orders Colonel Baxter selected the 1st Battalion of his 148th Infantry to move from Rendova to Zanana at daybreak.

The 13thInfantry then withdrew to the north. It had caused a few casualties but accomplished very little, certainly not enough to justify its trip from Kolombangara. As might be expected, General Sasaki was disappointed. Reincke Ridge, Kelley Hill, and Laiana beachhead remained in American hands.

Preparations for the Corps Offensive Commitment of the 37th Division

General Griswold, preparing for his corps offensive, needed fresh troops at the front. On 18 July he ordered Colonel Baxter to advance west with the 2nd Battalion of his 148th Infantry and relieve the 169th Infantry as soon as possible. Baxter, whose 1st and 2nd Battalions had arrived at Zanana that morning, effected the relief by 21 July after being delayed by Japanese detachments at the Barike.

After the 169th’s relief, regimental command changed again. Colonel Holland took over his old regiment, the 145th, while Lieutenant Col. Bernard J. Lindauer succeeded to command of the 169th. Lindauer’s regiment returned to Rendova for rest and reorganization. Its 3rd Battalion, after receiving 212 replacements, was sent into reserve at Laiana on 24 July.

By 23 July the major part of the 37th Division had arrived at New Georgia and was either in action or ready to be committed. Present were Division and Division Artillery Headquarters; the 145th and 148th Infantry Regiments less their 3rd Battalions, which were under Liversedge; the 135th and 136th Field Artillery Battalions; the 37th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop; and the signal, quartermaster, ordnance, engineer, and medical units (except B Company, 117th Engineer Battalion, and B Company, 112th Medical Battalion).

General Griswold, on 22 July, directed General Beightler to resume command at noon of all his units then on New Georgia except the 136th Field Artillery Battalion. To the 37th Griswold attached the 161st Regimental Combat Team less its artillery, and the 169th and 192nd Field Artillery Battalions of the 43rd Division. The 136th Field Artillery Battalion was serving as part of corps artillery. The other three organic and attached artillery battalions were under the 37th Division for direct fire support missions only; for all others they would be controlled by corps artillery, now commanded by General Barker.

Griswold, reshuffling units for the offensive, set the boundary between divisions along an east-by-south-west-bynorth line approximately thirteen hundred yards north of Ilangana. The 43rd Division was on the left (south), with the 103rd and 172nd Regiments in line from south to north.10 The 172nd moved right to establish contact with the 37th Division’s left.

The 37th Division, assigned an indefinite frontage north of the 43rd Division, gave the 145th Infantry a narrow front of 300 yards on the left, because only the 2nd Battalion, 145th, which had been covering the gap north of the 172nd Infantry, was immediately available. The 10 The 2nd Battalion, 103rd, having been relieved by the 1st Battalion, had come up from Wickham Anchorage.

1st Battalion was still holding the high ground taken over from the 169th Infantry. The 161st Infantry was given a 500-yard front in the center. One of its battalions constituted the corps reserve. The 148th Infantry was put on the right, with no definite frontage, and assigned the responsibility for protecting the corps’ right flank and rear.

All units had moved into position by 24 July. The 161st Infantry, whose transfer had been approved by General Harmon, had arrived at Baraulu Island on 21 July, moved to New Georgia the next day, and suffered its first casualties of the campaign when two captains of the regimental staff were killed on reconnaissance. On 23 July the regiment moved to assembly areas in preparation for the offensive. Most of the 161st’s zone of action lay north of the high ground taken by the 169th Infantry.

The corps line of departure ran northwest from a point near Ilangana. In the 161st’s zone, it lay about three hundred yards west of the assembly areas, and ran over Horseshoe Hill. Colonel Dalton, who had taken over command of the regiment in the closing days of the Guadalcanal Campaign, sent out patrols to reconnoiter for the line of departure.

These patrols were stopped short of the line by Japanese on a ridge that formed part of the northeast slope of Horseshoe Hill, and returned to report to Dalton that there were two pillboxes on the ridge. A reinforced platoon went out to deal with the enemy. This platoon came back and claimed the destruction of two positions but reported the presence of several more. Because Beightler did not want to commit the regiment to general action before 25 July, he ordered Dalton to use one rifle company to clear the ridge on 24 July. I Company, supported by M Company’s 81-mm. mortars, attacked and reported knocking out two more pillboxes, apparently by killing the occupants. But I Company also reported the presence of a dozen more pillboxes. Before nightfall, patrols reported that the Japanese had reoccupied the two positions I Company had attacked. Thus just before D Day the 161st Infantry was aware that a strong enemy position lay camouflaged between it and the line of departure.


In the days following his assumption of command, General Griswold and his staff were deeply occupied with administrative as well as tactical matters. Reinforcements from the 25th and 37th Divisions had to be received and assigned. The supply system was overhauled; medical services were improved.

General Griswold immediately designated Barabuni Island as supply dump for the 43rd Division, Kokorana for the 37th. Ships from Guadalcanal would land equipment and supplies in these islands, whence landing craft would transport them through the barrier islands to Laiana or to other positions on the barrier islands.

Hester’s move to Laiana was paying dividends. Although low, swampy ground had at first slowed construction of the trail from Laiana north to the Munda Trail, six hundred yards had been built by 17 July, and on 20 July the whole trail was opened to motor traffic.

As a result, Hester reported, his regiments would no longer need to be supplied from the air. The 43rd Division command post moved from Zanana to Laiana on 21 July. At the same time most of the 43rd Division’s service installations moved to Laiana. Two-lane roads were built within the dump areas, and additional trails out of Laiana, plus more trails to the various regiments, were also buiLieutenant Bulldozer operators working inland received fire from enemy riflemen on occasion. After one driver was wounded, the engineers fashioned shields for the bulldozers with steel salvaged from wrecked enemy landing craft. A D-4 and a much heavier D-7 bulldozer that came in with A Company, 65th Engineer Battalion, on 23 July, speeded construction of a trail to the 161st Infantry and of lateral trails in the 37th Division’s area. With the roads built it was possible to assemble supplies close behind the infantry regiments and to plan their systematic delivery in the future.

The XIV Corps and its assigned units also undertook the improvement of medical care. Several hours after he assumed command Griswold asked Harmon to send the 250-bed 17th Field Hospital from Guadalcanal to Rendova at once. Harmon approved. Because of physical frailty some medical officers had become casualties themselves, and the resulting shortage prevented careful supervision and handling of casualties. Griswold asked Harmon for fifteen medical officers physically able to stand the rigors of field service. To make sure that casualties being evacuated from New Georgia received proper medical attention during the trip to Guadalcanal, the corps surgeon arranged with naval authorities for a naval medical officer to travel on each LST carrying patients.

Finally, all units benefited by the 43rd Division’s experience in dealing with war neurosis. Rest camps, providing hot food, baths, clean clothes, and cots, were established on the barrier islands, and Colonel Hallam tried to see to it that more accurate diagnoses were made so that men suffering from combat fatigue were separated from true neurotics and sent to the camps.

Air Support

Air support of the New Georgia operation had been generally good, and the scale of bombing was increasing. Completion of the Segi Point field on 10 July and full employment of the Russells fields made it possible for fighters to escort all bombing missions. These missions could therefore be executed in daylight with resulting increases in accuracy. South Pacific air units were able to put more planes in the air at one time than ever before. Regular strikes against the Shortlands and southern Bougainville were intensified.

Allied fighters providing the 0700 to 1630 cover for the New Georgia Occupation Force also escorted the almost daily bombing attacks against Munda, Bairoko, and Vila. Fighter operations were proving especially effective in protecting the beachheads and shipping. On 15 July some seventy-five Japanese bombers and fighters were intercepted by thirty-one Allied fighters, who reported knocking down forty-five enemy craft at a cost of three American planes. Thereafter Japanese aircraft virtually abandoned daylight attacks against Rendova and New Georgia and confined their efforts to nocturnal harassment.

Bombing and strafing missions in support of the ground troops were numerous and heavy, considering the number of aircraft in the South Pacific. On 16 July 37 torpedo bombers and an equal number of dive bombers struck at Lambeti with thirty-six 1,000-pound, eighteen 2,000-pound, and eighty-eight 500-pound bombs at 0905. The strike was followed by another against Munda by 36 SBD’s and TBF’s. These dropped twelve 1,000pound and twelve 2,000-pound bombs at 1555. On 19 July 20 TBF’s and 18 SBD’s hit at positions north of Munda, and the next day 36 SBD’s dropped 1,000-pound bombs at suspected gun positions north of Lambeti. Two days later 36 SBD’s and 18 TBF’s again bombed the Munda gun positions, which were struck once more by 16 SBD’s on 23 July. On 24 July, the day before the corps offensive began, 37 TBF’s and 36 SBD’s with a screen of 48 fighters dropped thirty-seven 2,000-pound and thirty-six 1,000-pound bombs on Bairoko in the morning. In late afternoon 18 SBD’s and 16 TBF’s hit Munda and Bibilo Hill.

Most of the aircraft flying these missions were piloted by marines. It will be noted that this air support was, according to then current Army doctrine, direct air support. Most of these missions were flown as part of “a combined effort of the air and ground forces, in the battle area, to gain objectives on the immediate front of the ground forces.” But as most of the targets were several thousand yards from the front lines, this was not close air support, which was defined after the war as “attack by aircraft on hostile ground or naval targets which are so close to friendly forces as to require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of these forces.” 12 South Pacific commanders, including General Harmon, had hoped to make extensive use of close air support on New Georgia, and a few close air support missions such as that requested by Colonel Holland had been executed, but they were difficult for the air forces to execute and dangerous to the ground troops. There was, at that time, no systematized target marking system nor any good means of radio communication between the front lines and the aircraft. The Thirteenth Air Force had no tactical air communications squadron. The dense jungle and rolling terrain where the troops were operating had so few landmarks that pilots could not easily orient themselves. Nor could the ground troops orient themselves any more easily. Panels marking the front lines could scarcely be seen from the air.

Enemy positions could rarely be identified by spotters in observation planes or by air liaison parties on the ground. Because maps were inexact, and the troops had difficulty in locating themselves precisely, bombing missions executed close to the front lines resulted in casualties to American troops. Three soldiers of the 172nd Infantry were killed in that way on 16 July. For these reasons close air support was seldom used in any of the CARTWHEEL operations. The direct air support on New Georgia was, however, of great value, and General Griswold had every intention of following Harmon’s order that the New Georgia operation employ air support to the maximum degree.

Griswold, in the nine days following his assumption of command, had improved supply and evacuation on New Georgia. In spite of the failure at Bairoko, the tactical position, too, had improved. The tired 169th had been relieved, and fresh 25th and 37th Division regiments were ready to enter the fight. The troops had repulsed a counterattack, improved their position by seizing high ground, and now held a southeast-northwest line about three thousand yards from the east end of Munda field.

The XIV Corps could look forward to receiving the same resolute, effective air and naval support that had aided the 43rd Division. With the logistic and tactical situations of his troops thus improved, and sure of ample air and naval support, Griswold was ready to attack Munda.

SOURCE: Cartwheel: Reduction of Rabaul; By John Miller Jr. (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Munda Trail (9); XIV Corps Offensive

World War Two: Munda Trail; Offense Stalls


World War Two: North Africa (6-27); From Mareth to Enfidaville – 8th Army

The Approach of the British Eighth Army The main operation undertaken in March by 18 Army Group, aided by Allied aviation, was to bring the British Eighth Army through the constricted passage along the coast in the vicinity of Gabes despite any resistance Army Group Africa could offer.

The attempts to drive the German-Italian forces back from prepared defensive positions in this area were made almost wholly by troops of the British Empire and by associated units of other nationality under General Montgomery’s command. American participation was limited to the air and to independent auxiliary operations by the ground forces of the U.S. II Corps. In Northwest Africa two coalitions tested each other’s capacity in 1942-1943 to make maximum use of a combined total military potential. Although the Eighth Army’s push from Mareth to Enfidaville was a British exploit within an Allied military endeavor, a general account of it is necessary here as background for the description of the concurrent operations by the U.S. II Corps which follows.

The main test of Allied strength and Axis power in March was the battle for the Mareth Position. The British First Army and the Fifth Panzer Army were contending, to be sure, at several points in northern Tunisia, where the aggressiveness of General von Arnim was unremitting, but the basic objective of each army there was simply to pin down opposing troops and to prevent their direct contribution to a victory or a defeat in southern Tunisia. It became the purpose of Fifth Panzer Army to free the defenders of the Mareth Position as much as possible from Allied pressure.

The British First Army, for its part, aimed at holding in the north Axis men and materiel which could otherwise be sent to reinforce the Italian First Army at Mareth. During these preliminaries, the Eighth Army proceeded to the crucial battle with the majestic deliberation of a pachyderm. Its base was shifted westward to Tripoli, where harbor debris and port wreckage resulting from Allied bombing and Axis sabotage was expeditiously removed or repaired. In February Montgomery’s troops accelerated their advance toward Mareth in order to afford relief to the U.S. II Corps beyond Kasserine pass by threatening Rommel’s rear guard near Mareth. But with Rommel’s withdrawal the necessity for the action had actually passed before Eighth Army began pressing. Rommel did not withdraw in response to the Eighth Army’s threat but in his eagerness to win an early, easy victory over only its advanced elements. British Eighth Army’s preparations were thorough partly because of the methodical approach of its commander to any prospective battle and partly because the barrier at Mareth could be broken only by greatly superior strength, after which the enemy had to be pursued with celerity and ample resources.

Permission to pull his army westward into Tunisia, as stated earlier, had been granted to Rommel by Comando Supremo only when such a movement was recognized to be inevitable, and only on a schedule which would permit the completion in Tunisia of new defensive works. The retreat had been expedited in a manner which sorely tried the already shaken confidence of the Italians in Rommel. Although construction work on the defenses could no doubt have gone on indefinitely before those responsible for defending the position would have deemed it complete, the German-Italian Panzer Army arrived in the vicinity considerably ahead of the date thought appropriate by Comando Supremo. The necessary time still remained because General Montgomery believed that it would be sounder military practice to wait until he could attain full preparedness for the attack than to catch the enemy only partly ready for defense. By the time of the battIe, the Axis forces had had about three months in which, with such scanty materials as could be procured, and using labor and replacement troops, to develop the defenses constituting the Mareth barrier.

The Mareth Position

The coastal corridor between Tripoli and Gabes across which the Mareth Line was established south of Gabes, becomes a narrowing bottleneck between the sea and a belt of severely eroded hills, averaging about 1,300 feet and rising to peaks of 2,200 feet, the Matmata chain. The coast line trends from southeast to northwest while the eastern front of the hill mass runs more nearly north and south. The corridor thus converges to make a gap of slightly more than twenty miles from Zarat, near the coast, through Mareth to Toudjane in the hills.

The main road from Tripoli to Tunis passes through Ben Gardane near the Tunisian border, then on through Medenine and Mareth to Gabes. The narrow gap south of Mareth is traversed from southwest to northeast by stream beds, and punctuated by a few scattered low hills, such as the spur running east towards the Zemlet el Lebene which furnished cover for the German approach to Medenine on 5-6 March. Of the stream beds, the Zigzaou wadi is the most considerable, and along it, the French before the war constructed a Tunisian version of the Maginot Line. The resemblance was chiefly in the defensive concept which underlay both projects. For the Mareth Position had been erected to defend the colony from a possible attack by the Italians, and the works were rather primitive. Axis development of the position took account of the obsolescence of the concrete and steel pillboxes and shelters, and of the necessity for establishing defense in depth on the ground in front of the Zigzaou wadi rather than behind it. By the time the British Eighth Army arrived for its attack, the Mareth defensive system had been made formidable although far from invulnerable.

The Mareth Position extended for about twenty-five miles across the corridor southwesterly from the coast along the course of the Zigzaou wadi to high ground in the Matmata hills in the vicinity of Cheguimi south of Toudjane. The wadi was wide and fairly deep, with sheer banks; when the bottom was awash with the runoff of recent rains and the banks muddy from seasonal soakings, the ditch became difficult for tanks to cross and even more difficult for wheeled vehicles. At all times, wet or dry, it could be surmounted by the methods developed in modern warfare unless protected by fire of sufficient force and intensity, in which case it could be an effective element in a system of defense. The Zigzaou wadi was extended and supplemented by excavated tank ditches along which continuous mounds of soft earth and occasional concrete or masonry obstacles had been erected. A line of twenty-six fortified strongpoints stretched from the coast to the hills, thence south along the eastern front of the high mass, ending in a Y, with one prong jutting northwestward to Toudjane, and the other southward along the escarpment east of Cheguimi. Each strongpoint had several concrete dugouts, machine gun emplacements, or shelters, those in the plain being far less substantial than the newer ones in the hills. Two belts of mines had been laid around an irregular zone from four to six miles wide roughly paralleling the Zigzaou wadi on the side toward Medenine and enclosing the village of Arram. Within this advance sector, from the Djebel Sai”kra (302) at the south, to the northwestern edge of some salt marshes near the ocean, the Axis command had placed artillery and machine guns behind bunkers and wire, and planned to hold off attackers at this point as long as possible. Artillery observation could be much better in this advanced area than in the main line near the coast.

The Matmata hills form a belt generally less than ten miles wide but broadening to more than twenty miles west of Mareth, where they enclose an irregular plateau. The tracks through these hills at most points are unfit for wheeled transport. From the plain at Medenine, the roads to the west, such as that through Hallouf pass which the 10th Panzer Division used in the 6 March attack, enter the chain through defiles which could be blocked by mines and by blasting. A road from Medenine to the great oasis at El Hamma, west of Gabes, leads across the southwestern end of the Mareth Position and into the mountains. From Toudjane, a village at the eastern edge of the interior plateau, it continues for thirteen miles farther northwest to Matmata, another Berber community, and after ten miles more of twisting progress, reaches the northern limit of the entire hill mass.

Far to the south, where the hills become more scattered, a road from Foum Tatahouine leads through them to the desert, which stretches away to Algeria. The desert is bounded on the north by vast, shallow, salt-crusted lakes, the great chotts, which extend across the middle of Tunisia from close to the Algerian border to within fifteen miles of the Golfe de Gabes. Ranges of mountains supplement the chotts as a complex barrier to north-south movement. At the eastern end are Gabes and the Chott (or Wadi Akarit) Position. Djebel Tebaga (469) along the southern edge of Chott el Fedjadj leaves a gap of barely 6,000 yards between its ridge and the northwesterly spur of the Matmata hills.


The Djebel Halouga (222) and adjacent high ground north of the Matmata hills in effect extend the gap to the oasis of El Hamma. If a force could make its way through the Matmata hills to the desert, and pass along the rim of the desert toward El Hamma, it would still have to penetrate this 6,000-yard opening before it could break out onto the coastal plain. It might swing eastward at once and pass along the northern edge of the Matmata hills, but it would find the going easier if it continued north to El Hamma itself, before turning to the east to reach Gabes. Such a maneuver would, by first winning a victory over natural obstacles and thereafter over defenders in the El Hamma gap, flank the Mareth Position and bring the force onto the coastal plain in the rear of its defenders. The difficulties were deemed insuperable for a substantial force with wheeled vehicles at the time the French were building the Mareth Line, but that view no longer prevailed. Indeed, advice on how to turn the line in this way was submitted from General Catroux to the Allies and transmitted to AFHQ.

Rommel’s Analysis of the Mareth Position

Field Marshal Rommel’s confidence in the Mareth Position was not very firm. The line, he thought, could be enveloped by comparatively strong forces from either the south or the west. The British could be relied upon to attempt such a maneuver. Two passes, Beni Kreddache and Ksar el Hallouf, through which the British could cross the mountain barrier south of the line, would require outlying defensive forces. The deep northwestern flank would have to be protected south of El Hamma with other separate mobile elements. Finally, reserves also had to be in readiness to meet an attack from the direction of Gafsa.

In the main Mareth Line, the Axis because of the limited time available had to adopt the concrete emplacements and pillboxes of the French as the core, but the structures could be used for excellent shelter only, since the ironwork was very badly rusted. Guns would have to be emplaced in field positions between individual pillboxes. The old French line of fortifications was dominated by heights a few miles in front of the main positions. They could thus be brought under observed artillery fire while their own observation was seriously restricted. To retain possession of the heights as long as possible was therefore essential. Moreover, the Italian artillery in the main line, which greatly exceeded that of the German units in number of pieces (340 Italian, 65 German), would be outranged unless set up ahead of the fortification toward the heights. Mines and tank traps would be needed to furnish security for the guns in these forward positions.

The Gabes-Tripoli highway divided the main fortified line into two sectors, with the sector to the northeast on the more vulnerable terrain. The British attack on the forward positions would probably begin there and, after a successful break-in, would be in a position to roll up the forward portion of the southern sector. After gaining possession of all the advanced positions, the attackers could be expected to move along either side of the highway against the Italian XX Corps.

Rommel recommended that the reinforcement and re-equipment of German units be expedited and that the lesson of El Alamein with reference to the expenditure of artillery ammunition be applied. This would require that three units of fire be kept at the firing positions, three more in accessible dumps, and another three in the reserve. He indicated the disposition of mobile troops which seemed to promise the best results, and added: “If the enemy intends an encirclement to the west . . . as is assumed, it is all the more important to defend the Beni Kreddache and Ksar el Hallouf passes and to force him into a time consuming detour as far to the south as possible, at least as far as Foum Tatahouine.”

The Axis could not meet an envelopment against the deep northwest flank by counterattack for lack of forces, and even a firm defense of the flank would drain off the reserves being held either to resist an attack from Gafsa or to support the main front (15th Panzer Division, Panzer Grenadier Regiment Africa, 1st Luftwaffe .Jaeger Brigade, and reinforced 7th Bersaglieri Battalion). But, as Rommel saw it, if the First Italian Army were properly replenished, had time to finish preparations, kept its mobile reserves instead of using them to repel an attack from Gafsa, and received resolute fighting from its Italian divisions, it might at least win a decisive defensive success.

The Gap Leading to El Hamma

From the point of view of Allied forces operating in southern Tunisia, the road through the valley from Gafsa to El Hamrna and Gabes was potentially a protected route for timely intervention from the west in any battle in the coastal corridor. North of the chotts two mountain chains form a valley running east and west. Passage through this valley-fifteen miles at the narrowest point-is further restricted by small salt marshes and several separate prominent hills. The northern chain is broken at the western end of Djebel Orbata (1165) just south of the oasis of Gafsa, but extends eastward for sixty miles from that opening as far as the village of Mezzouna.

The U.S. II Corps east of Tebessa might drive down this valley either to strike at Gabes or to hit the Axis line of communications north of the coastal narrows, compelling Army Group Africa to fight two separate but related battles. The very threat of such action would divert Axis forces from other positions or thin them out where strength already barely met requirements. Thus the Allies could use the Gafsa-Gabes valley in a manner reminiscent of the way the Shenandoah Valley was utilized during the American Civil War. In the developing crisis of March 1943, all routes in southern Tunisia seemed to lead to the focal point near Gabes.

The small reconnaissance teams of the Eighth Army’s Long Range Desert Group which investigated the routes of overland travel west of the Matmata mountains in January and early February got as far as Tozeur, where they made contact with some men from British First Army. They returned to Eighth Army with encouraging reports.

It appeared that no obstacles existed which the Eighth Army could not surmount with the aid of bulldozers and other tracked vehicles. A flanking force of considerable strength could reach the El Hamma gap. On the basis of this information, and what was known of the structure and organization of the Mareth Position, General Montgomery drafted the first tentative plan for his attack on the Mareth Position (Operation PUGILIST GALLOP) .

Plans for Operation PUGILIST GALLOP

The British Eighth Army approached the fight for the Mareth Position in a spirit of strong confidence. The units were battle seasoned. They had driven Rommel’s army from the field in one of the war’s decisive battles. Although they had not brought the enemy to a stand, they had won a long series of subsequent small victories which they had capped by successfully holding their positions against counterattack near Medenine. They thought that Rommel was still commanding the opposing forces, but in view of their triumphs no longer feared him.

The plan of attack was incisively explained to all commanders by General Montgomery himself. The Eighth Army planned to move on 20 March, when the moonlight would for the first time facilitate a night assault after other required preparations had been made. About one fourth of the force would pass through the mountains at a point 60 miles south of the Mareth Line, continue over 140 miles to El Hamma gap by night marches, and, after breaking through there, would swing to the east to disrupt the enemy’s rear. While this long flanking march and ensuing attack were being executed, the main thrust would be made near the coast. The terrain there was marshy; the area for maneuver was somewhat cramped; the Zigzaou wadi was at its widest and deepest; but the belt of advanced defenses was narrow and the strongpoints, with fields of fire restricted by rolling terrain, were therefore less effective than others farther to the southwest. The Italian defenders could probably be thrown back somewhat more easily than their better armed and more determined German associates. Once infantry was through the main barrier and established on the northern side, two armored divisions could cross to exploit to the west and southwest. If both the main and flanking attacks succeeded, the Axis forces would be separated and cut off in such a manner that no firm defense could be made short of Sfax. That city was named as the objective of the operation.

The Eighth Army entered the battle for the Mareth Position organized into two regular and one provisional corps. The enveloping march and attack through El Hamma gap were assigned to a provisional New Zealand Corps under Lieutenant General Sir Bernard C. Freyberg. The force numbered about 27,000 men. It consisted of the 2nd New Zealand Division; the 8th Armoured Brigade; the French L Force (General LeClerc) of 2,000-3,000 Senegalese with French officers; the King’s Dragoon Guards (an armored car regiment) ; one regiment each of field and medium artillery; and the Greek Sacred Squadron, in some 30 jeeps with mounted machine guns. The 120 tanks and 112 field and 172 antitank guns, the hundreds of trucks, cars, and tracked vehicles, after falling back to the road fork at Ben Gardane and turning southwest, would enter the mountains near Foum Tatahouine.

The main attack was to be delivered on a 1,200-yard front close to the seacoast by 30 Corps under General Leese. It would include the British 50th (Northumberland) and 51st (Highland) Divisions, 4th Indian Division, and British 201st Guards Brigade. The third major element of the army, 10 Corps, commanded by General Horrocks, consisted of the 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions and 4th Light Armoured Brigade. It was to be held in reserve at first and then pass through a gap gained by the infantry in order to exploit access to the enemy’s rear areas.

The attack by Eighth Army was to receive the fullest possible assistance from the Allied air forces. In general, plans called for operations on the part of Northwest African Air Forces against Axis aviation which would provide air supremacy in the battle area, permitting the Western Desert Air Force and the American Ninth Air Force to concentrate on the tactical support of Eighth Army. In fulfillment of this program, the Northwest African Tactical Bomber Force and the major part of the Strategic Air Force were committed to strikes on the Axis landing fields in the vicinity of Gabes, Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa (270), and Mezzouna on 20 and 21 March. These operations. along with others by the Tactical Air Force against these fields and in the air, eventually drove Axis air units northward to the Sfax-La Fauconnerie area. The ground battle was fought with extensive assistance by the Western Desert and U.S. Ninth Air Forces.

Defense Plans

For the defense of the Mareth-EI Hamma positions General Messe in mid-March had disposed the forces of his First Italian Army along the fortified line as follows:

( 1) On the coastal plain, from northeast to southwest-the Italian XX Corps under Generale di Divisione Taddeo Orlando, including the 136th (Young Fascists) Division, commanded by Generale di Divisione Nino Sozzani and the 101st (Trieste) Division under Generale di Brigata Francesco La Ferla (the latter’s sector embracing the village of Mareth).

(2) In the center, the German 90th Light Africa Division under Generalmajor Theodor Graf von Sponeck. The seven battalions and six batteries of this unit held a sector through which the heavily mined highway from Medenine to Mareth ran until just south of the village of Arram, where it turned northward into Division Trieste’s sector before again swinging northwestward to Mareth.

( 3) In the western portion, the Italian XXI Corps, commanded by Generale di Corpo d’ Armata Paolo Berardi, consisting of the 80th (La S pezia) Division under Generale di Brigata Gavino Pizzolato, and the 16th (Pistoia ) Motorized Division under Generale di Brigata Giuseppe Falugi (nearest Toud jane) with the German 164th Light Africa Division under Generalmajor Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein. This German division was in a zone extending across the belt of hills north of Hallouf pass and centering on Matmata. It had been reduced to four battalions and one battery prior to the Mareth battle. Special detachments defended the defiles of Hallouf and Beni Kreddache and the tracks leading westward from them.

Along the line in the coastal zone, the 19th Flak Division (Luftwaffe) under Generalmajor Gothard Frantz had placed sixteen dual-purpose 88-mm. flak batteries and numerous 20-mm. antiaircraft batteries. The hills from Tamezred to Djebel Melab (333) and the narrow gap from there to Djebel Tebaga were in a sector with field works defended by the Saharan Group (Raggruppamento Sahariano), commanded by Generale di Brigata Alberto Mannerini. This force was a miscellaneous aggregation amounting to nine battalions and eleven batteries. In a second defense line to the rear and along the Ez Zerkin wadi were the army reserves. Nearest the coast the 1st Luftwaffe Brigade, by now reduced to the strength of a reinforced battalion, held a narrow sector behind the Young Fascists Division. Next to it was the Panzer Grenadier Regiment Africa covering the Mareth-Gabes road. The 15th Panzer Division covered the gap between the highway and the Matmata mountains.

Farther to the rear, the 21st Panzer Division, instead of making a contemplated swift thrust through Gafsa at French forces in Tozeur, on 17-18 March moved to an assembly area fifteen miles southwest of Gabes and ten miles west of Mareth. From this position it could support either the coastal or the northwestern portions of the Mareth Line. The 10th Panzer Division remained well north of Gabes near Sousse, subject to call. None of these divisions was up to anything like its full strength in men, tanks, or other weapons. Some 50,000 Germans and 35,000 Italians were in the First Italian Army, according to the highest Allied estimate. This was slightly higher than the actual ration strength of that Army which amounted to 77,473 late in February, with only insignificant changes since that date. Eighth Army had 37 infantry battalions in the area to the enemy’s 45 (in his infantry divisions); 1,481 guns to the enemy’s 680; 623 tanks to the enemy’s 150, and air strength of at least two to one.

The defense of the Mareth Position against British Eighth Army’s attack was undertaken in an atmosphere of strained German-Italian relations in the field. This condition, recurrent if not continuous, was rendered much more severe during the week before the attack. The Germans of what was formerly Rommel’s army were unhappy over its fate. Rommel himself was never reconciled to the Italian decision that the stand in Tunisia against the Eighth Army should be made at the Mareth Line rather than just north of Gabes in the Chott Position. The decision at the highest levels against his proposals of 3 March to concentrate all Axis forces in the Enfidaville line until the supply problem had been solved was doubtless disappointing, but he would not take no for an answer. In his visit to Hitler’s headquarters on 10 March he again attempted to gain the Führer’s approval for a withdrawal into the smaller bridgehead. Although Rommel was again rebuffed, Hitler agreed to a redisposition of the forces of the First Italian Army.

Rommel argued that the consequences of a possible Allied break-through at the Mareth Line, coupled with a flanking attack, could be averted only by strengthening the Chott Position at once with all available means. He suggested that two non-mobile Italian divisions, then in the. Mareth Line, be immediately sent to the Chott Position to begin the construction work and that the defense of Mareth Line pass to German mobile units supported by Italian motorized elements on the flanks.

Rommel deemed the combined Italian and German forces in the Mareth Line ample for a subsequent defense of the Chott Position. The 10th, 15th, and 21st Panzer Divisions would then be available to operate under Headquarters, DAK, as Army Group Africa reserve. Such a disposition of forces would, in Rommel’s view, provide for a delaying action in the wider southern approaches to the Gabes corridor and a stronger defense near its northern end.

Hitler agreed with Rommel and Jodl so informed OB SOUTH. Kesselring was to move the Spezia and Pistoia Divisions to the Chott Position. The Centauro Division was to take over the flank protection mission of the 164th Light Africa Division in the Matmata mountains. The latter would then move into the Mareth Line, while the Trieste Division provided security east of Gafsa. The Luftwaffe was to win time for the ground forces to carry out these moves by increasing its activity. Kesselring was determined to seek a change in these orders when he met Hitler and Doenitz at Rastenburg on 14 March to confer about supply. They were not communicated to Comando Supremo. The orders went directly to von Arnim from OB SOUTH only on 14 March, the day Kesselring flew to Rastenburg.

[NOTE 72-74NAT: On 13 and 14 March von Arnim complained to various officers in higher headquarters that Kesselring on the 13th had forbidden him to send tactical reports to OKW, OKH, and Rommel. On 23 March Hitler reaffirmed the right of all higher headquarters to communicate directly with him, sending information copies to their immediate superiors. Msgs, von Arnim (1) to Rommel, OKW /WFSt, and OKH, and (2) others, in EAP 21-x-·14/2.]

On the afternoon of the 14th von Arnim went to the headquarters of the First Italian Army to see to the immediate execution of the orders he had just received. Messe, who was busy carrying out the instructions he had received only a few days earlier to hold to the end in the Mareth Position, was dumfounded. He protested that the change of plans would have a bad effect on the morale of his Army. He regarded the wholesale shift in the disposition of his forces and the complicated movements involved as inadvisable in the face of the Eighth Army’s expected attack. It seemed to him tantamount to the first stage in a withdrawal to the Enfidaville Position, in the guise of an order to create a unified Mareth-Chott defense. He demanded to know if his organization of the Mareth Position, previously directed, was now to be replaced by a withdrawal to the Chott. Von Arnim merely replied that he had received orders that Messe must carry out. The only concession Messe obtained was to be allowed to keep the Trieste and Centauro Divisions in place, while moving the Spezia and Pistoia Divisions.

Meanwhile, Kesselring obtained from Hitler a reversal of the new orders. Notified on 16 March, Messe halted all movements and returned the troops to their former positions. Comando Supremo, until now basking in happy ignorance of moves and countermoves within the German command, was suddenly alerted to the circumvention of its nominal authority and asked for explanations from all concerned, but received little satisfaction.1s Thus on the eve of the Mareth battle, General Messe and his German associates in Tunisia were at odds; the anti-Italian attitude implied in the proposed shifts among the defending troops produced resentment; and the changes in plan gave the Italians further grounds for distrust of German leadership.

The Battle on the Coastal Plain

Ground operations opened on the night of 16-17 March with preliminary attacks by elements of the British 30 Corps. The British 50th and 51st Divisions launched separate assaults with the objective of pressing back enemy outposts in the fore-field of the Mareth Position. Both divisions succeeded in advancing their lines. A third attack, launched in the 10 Corps zone by the 201st Guards Brigade, was directed against a prominent hill, near the Medenine-Mareth highway, which gave the Germans good observation of the British line in this sector. The object of the attack was not only to seize this hill but to induce the defenders to expect the main thrust to be made between the Mareth road and the Matmata mountains. The Germans were ready. They drove the Guards back to their lines with heavy casualties, and retained their observation post.

These preliminary attacks cost the enemy 195 killed or wounded and 69 missing and yielded British intelligence valuable information on Axis dispositions. The enemy was husbanding his artillery ammunition, especially in 100-mm. shells. The First Italian Army had at its immediate disposal 56 tanks: 29 German and 27 Italian. The German Africa Corps, with the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions, and a total of 94 tanks, was in army group reserve. The 21st Panzer Division, which had been moved toward Mareth on 17-18 March to counterattack if necessary in conjunction with the 15th Panzer Division, was not expected to arrive in its assembly area before the morning of the 19th.

German air reconnaissance observed the movement of the 6,000 vehicles of New Zealand Corps on 18 March. General Messe was led by this movement, along with other Allied preparatory shift, to the conclusion on 19 March that an attack at the El Hamrana gap by one armored division, one infantry division, and one motorized brigade should be expected in three or four days, at the same time that the main blows were being struck against the Mareth Line by at least three Allied infantry divisions, two infantry brigades, two armored divisions, and two armored brigades.

The Western Desert Air Force participated in the operations to break the Mareth barrier with twenty-two squadrons of fighters and fighter bombers (535 aircraft), seven squadrons of bombers (140 aircraft), and almost three reconnaissance squadrons. The full program of preparatory bombing was cut down by inclement weather but on 20 March, the very day of the first major attack, escorted bomber formations flew nine missions against Axis gun positions, transport, and concentrations of troops in the Mareth area. Fighter bombers also hit the area once and the Gabes airfield once. During this operation, PUGILIST GALLOP, the enemy was bombed each night.

The British opened the main attack on the Mareth Line with an extremely heavy artillery preparation by over 300 guns in the evening of 20 March. The enemy estimated that 20,000 rounds fell in the Young Fascists sector, nearest the coast, and about 16,000 rounds in the 90th Light Africa Division’s area farther west.

Eighth Army assigned the attempt to punch through the final line to British 30 Corps. The 30 Corps assigned it to the British 50th Division, which gave the mission to the 151st Brigade and 50th Royal Tank Regiment (fifty-one tanks, of which eight had 6-pounder guns). The British 69th Brigade and a detachment of the 9th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, were expected to clear a path to the Zigzaou wadi and to set up protection on the southwestern flank for the crossing of that barrier at three points-one for each of two infantry battalions and one for the tanks. Following closely an artillery barrage, and led by “Scorpions” (tanks equipped with flailing chains on revolving drums to detonate enemy mines), the tanks of the armored column would carry fascines, ten feet long and eight feet in diameter, to make the wadi crossing and that of the steep-sided antitank ditch beyond it passable for the heavy vehicles. The infantry and tanks were to fan out on the far side in a bridgehead from which the enemy was to be cleared by battles at numerous strongpoints.

Severe difficulties impeded the first night’s operations. The British force opened the path to the wadi and established the flank protection, but the Scorpions failed and the mines had to be more slowly removed by engineers using detectors. The infantry crossed successfully but the tanks were delayed.

Some of their fascines were ignited and had to be replaced from a stock farther to the rear. Enemy fire was heavy and continuous and, near the wadi’s edge, knocked out several tanks. In the wadi itself, troops removed the mines despite intense fire, but from one bank to the other they found the bottom to be very soft, with the fifty-foot channel for the running stream particularly so. Four tanks got across both the wadi and the antitank ditch, but a fifth settled into soft ground almost up to its turret, and could not be removed with the means at hand. Construction of a route around this obstacle before daylight was impossible. Thus the 151st Brigade, with only these four tanks of the 50th Royal Tank Regiment, reached the far side of the Zigzaou wadi to establish the bridgehead.

During the next day, the 151st Brigade, reinforced, successfully extended its area for about two miles along the wadi and one mile in depth. The Italians, in spite of German efforts to prevent them, surrendered freely as opportunity offered. One battalion of the 90th Light Africa Division, artillery units from the 15th Panzer Division, the Luftwaffe Jaeger Brigade, and the Panzer Grenadier Regiment Africa were committed to reinforce the Young Fascists Division.

British attempts on the second night to get the rest of the tanks across were successful, but a firm road for wheeled vehicles they could not construct, so that antitank guns and field artillery had to support the shallow bridgehead from the Eighth Army’s side of the wadi. During the night, the fine weather came to an end. March 22 opened with low clouds and intermittent but very heavy showers.

At 1300, the 15th Panzer Division counterattacked after organizing near Zarat, placing the British in a difficult position. Launched with almost thirty tanks and two battalions of infantry, the counterattack was impeded but not stopped by the rain soaked ground and was in full course by 1700. The British Valentine tanks were no match for the Mark Ill’s and IV’s. Support by Western Desert Air Force was washed out by the weather just as the enemy’s drive was getting under way. By the time the skies had cleared, the battle had brought British and Axis units so close together that Allied aircraft could not helpfully intervene. Fighting bitterly at various localities, British troops held until darkness, when they began to withdraw across the wadi. About thirty-five British tanks and 200 prisoners were left in enemy hands. The bridgehead no longer existed. All elements on the far side of the wadi were recalled before morning, 24 March.

Following the storms and rain which blighted 30 Corps’ effort to enlarge its bridgehead across the Zigzaou wadi, the weather was brilliantly clear and the nights illuminated by an almost full moon. On the nights of 24-25 and 25-26 March it was possible for the bombers of the Western Desert Air Force to make 322 sorties over the El Hamma area, where they attacked enemy signal and supply and communications. At the same time, the Strategic Air Force hit the port at Sousse and the airfield near Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa, northwest of Gabes.

The Shift to Operation SUPERCHARGE II

Inability to maintain the bridgehead which British 30 Corps had gained during the night of 20-21 March and to use it as a base for a breakout to the rear of the Mareth Position forced General Montgomery to adopt an alternative. Operation PUGILIST GALLOP had gone awry. In trying to make the critical decision whether to try attacking elsewhere on the coastal plain, or in the mountains, or on the northwestern flank beyond the mountains, he had the benefit of an initial success by General Freyberg’s provisional New Zealand Corps. That force arrived south of El Hamma gap, after almost forty-eight hours of arduous and unexpectedly swift marching over the edge of the desert, in mid-afternoon of 21 March. Here the enemy line of mines, tank traps, and gun positions curved southward to cover the fork formed by the junction of tracks from Gabes and El Hamma with the one leading past the southern side of Djebel Tebaga toward Kebili. The approaching force stopped out of artillery range, reconnoitered, deployed, and made surveys to enable the artillery to fire without preliminary registration.

Instead of waiting for the next day, General Freyberg’s command prepared to attack that very night. Much battle experience enabled the New Zealanders to execute such an operation in the bright moonlight, and in particular to drive an enemy force from an outpost on Hill 201, a mesa rising in the middle of the gap about a mile from its southern entrance. Hill 201 dominated the lower adjacent ground. The New Zealanders won it at a cost of 65 casualties and took nearly 850 Italian prisoners. It remained in Allied hands thereafter, despite sturdy counterattacks.

While the New Zealand Corps was completing its approach on 21 March, the 21st Panzer Division started westward to support the Italians in the El Hamma gap and the 164th Light Africa Division withdrew through the hills northwest of Toudjane and Matmata. At 1030, 22 March, the latter division received orders to continue toward the northwestern front, to participate in the counterattack to regain Hill 201, which the 21st Panzer Division had thus far been unable to regain that morning. The 164th Light Africa Division was consequently on the way there on the same afternoon that the 15th Panzer Division off to the east was counterattacking against the northern edge of the 50th Division’s bridgehead and about to wipe it out altogether.

As General von Liebenstein’s division approached, General Freyberg’s forces were not only maintaining their hold on Hill 201 but clearing the hills on either side of the gap, working in general to the northeast. Late on 22 March, having failed to regain the hill, the Axis command accepted the necessity of pulling its line in the El Hamma gap back about three miles from the first location.

By evening of 22 March it had become obvious that the attack of British 30 Corps against the eastern end of the Mareth Position could make no further progress. General Freyberg’s force, on the other hand, had made a successful penetration at El Hamma gap. It was also known that the enemy had now committed all his available reserves. Such was the situation when during the night General Montgomery had to determine the future course of the Eighth Army’s attack.

With the same rapidity and assurance he had employed in meeting the vicissitudes of the Battle of El Alamein, General Montgomery decided to drop Operation PUGILIST GALLOP and to convert his flanking foray into the main effort. His initial problem was to send reinforcements in sufficient strength and speed to retain the Allied advantage already gained in the El Hamma gap and thus to build up even faster than the enemy.

He now shifted all his available reserves and resources to the west in support of General Freyberg’s outflanking maneuver. Instructing 30 Corps to make every effort to tie down Axis reserves in the Mareth Line, Montgomery alerted General Horrocks’ British 10 Corps headquarters with the 1st Armored Division for movement after dark on 23 March over the same route used by the provisional New Zealand Corps. From an assembly area east of Medenine, the 4th Indian Division was sent after darkness of 23 March toward Hallouf pass to open it for a shorter supply route to El Hamma gap, and to follow up the withdrawal to the north by 164th Light Africa Division. The 4th Indian Division was to take Toudjane and gain control of the northeastern section of the Matmata hills. It thus might obtain a route along which the 7th Armoured Division could make a short western hook around the Mareth Line and exploit the area south of Gabes. The enemy forces in the Mareth Position were to be held there by measures designed to look like preparations for a renewed thrust.

General Horrocks arrived at General Freyberg’s command post during the afternoon, 24 March, to find the latter under insistent pressure by General Montgomery to make a full-scale attack, if possible on the very next afternoon. Freyberg had proposed some alternatives, all of which were rejected in favor of speed, and he and Horrocks finally concluded that a blitz attack in the manner of that which broke through at El Alamein, an Operation SUPERCHARGE II, could be attempted at 1600, 26 March. Until then, all fighting would have to remain preliminary to the major battle.

On the enemy side General Mannerini, after canvassing with Generals Hildebrandt and von Liebenstein the prospects for a successful joint counterattack by their divisions to recapture Hill 201, canceled the project. The Allied intention to switch the point of their main attack to the El Hamma gap was correctly interpreted from Allied movements observed late on 23 March and again on 24 March. All that day, heavy movement to the south was reported by observers in the hills. The 15th Panzer Division, which had been pulled back late on 23 March to an area northwest of the village of Mareth, continued during the night toward an area north of the Matmata hills from which it could move either back to the Mareth Line or on into the El Hamma gap; on the night of 24-25 March, the division took up positions southeast of Djebel Halouga. The forward line of enemy defenses from Djebel Tebaga through Djebel Melab and southeast to Tamezred was thereafter covered by German as well as Italian troops. The 164th Light Africa Division took up positions on the northern flank, and agreement was reached that the boundary between the southeastern sector, under Italian XXI Corps, and the northwestern sector, under General von Liebenstein, would be about two miles east of Djebel Melab. Despite the Allied grip on the southern entrance, these enemy measures seemed likely to make Allied progress up the gap toward El Hamma extremely difficult.

Two factors reduced the difficulty. One was the Allied air program for Operation SUPERCHARGE II. General Montgomery accepted Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst’s proposal for extraordinary action by the Western Desert Air Force at the inception of the attack. The ground assault was to open about 1600, when the sun would be low on the horizon behind the attacking troops. It was to be preceded by a very heavy daylight air assault along El Hamma gap, supplemented by a rolling artillery barrage, both of which would be followed up closely by infantry and tanks.

When the enemy’s line of defenses had been breached, the armor was to pour through the opening and to thrust toward Gabes before daylight on 27 March. This program of co-ordinated attack promised to overcome the substantial advantage of the enemy’s gun positions on high ground on either flank. The second factor contributing to the Eighth Army’s success was perhaps unknown to its command. General Messe had been instructed by von Arnim on the morning of 24 March to withdraw to the Chott Position before being overwhelmed in the Mareth Line.

General von Arnim surveyed the situation with Generals Bayerlein and Liebenstein on the morning of 24 March, when General Montgomery’s new intentions had been confirmed, and in view of the Allied pressure also at El Guettar and Maknassy, decided that the retreat to the Chott Position should be started during the approaching night. Von Arnim told M esse to begin his withdrawal by pulling out his non-motorized Italian infantry at once, while holding present positions with mobile units.

Messe did not agree with von Arnim on the urgency of the need to withdraw to the Chott Position, and protested that for lack of transport he could not begin it until 25 March. When Kesselring arrived on the afternoon of the 24th, he took the same view as Messe and advised him to launch a counterattack by the 15th Panzer Division to improve the situation. General Messe, as a consequence of Kesselring’s visit, informed General von Arnim, next morning, that he preferred a counterattack on the coastal plain to withdrawal from the 1tIareth Line, but was informed that a withdrawal would be necessitated by the situation farther north.

It took British 10 Corps headquarters and the British 1st Armoured Division almost a full day longer to reach the northwestern battle area than it had taken the New Zealand Corps. They barely made the line of departure at the appointed hour on 26 March, but make it they did. The program of air bombardment which was to continue for about twenty-four hours preceding the assault was stopped in the morning by sandstorms on the airfields, but was executed with overwhelming results in the later phases beginning in midafternoon. On the hills beside the gap and to the east, a battle went on all day. Far forward, the 2nd New Zealand Division waited for the attack to jump off. The first to attack was to be the 8th Armoured Brigade. Infantry lay all day concealed near the enemy in holes which had been dug during the preceding night. Over their heads the planes began roaring on their way to bomb and strafe the area to be attacked.

The air attack at 1530 was made by three formations of light and medium bombers, which dropped their bombs in pattern from low altitudes. Fighter bombers followed immediately in continuous low-level attacks. They kept arriving in fifteen-minute relays of about thirty planes which flew continuously over the enemy ahead of the ground troops for the next two and one-half hours. Fighter patrols protected the fighter bombers from enemy intervention, while simultaneous attacks on enemy airfields successfully forestalled opposition by Axis planes. Four hundred and twelve sorties were flown.

With air co-operation to Operation SUPERCHARGE II thus completely undisturbed by the Luftwaffe, losses were limited to eleven pilots missing. Difficulties in co-ordinating the air with the ground action were anticipated and solved by the use of colored smoke and other devices for marking the area to be attacked. The troops started forward at 1600 at a swift rate, as prescribed in the plans, and closely behind the artillery barrage and the falling bombs.

At the designated time the New Zealand infantry rose from their cover, marked the bomb line with orange smoke signals, and behind a swiftly creeping artillery barrage and low-level air attacks swept forward. The two center battalions of the 164th Light Africa Division were overrun.

Through the gap, the British armor then poured toward El Hamma and Gabes, leaving the infantry in heavy engagements behind them on the hills. The tanks penetrated about four miles before dark and, after waiting for the moon to rise, passed through the enemy’s reserve armored elements before daybreak. Dawn on 27 March found them on the edge of El Hamma, where they were stopped by an antitank screen; General von Liebenstein sent reinforcements there to deter them as long as possible.

The Enemy Falls Back to the Chou Position Full exploitation of the Allied breakthrough on 27 March was prevented for two days by determined and resourceful measures south of El Hamma by German armored elements, especially by General Borowiecz’s 15th Panzer Division with about fifty tanks. Group von Liebenstein left its hill positions southeast of Djebel Melab before daylight and took up mobile defense of a line between these hills, Djebel Halouga, and El Hamma. The British 1st Armoured Division was held off at the north and struck by a counterattack, delivered by elements of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, on its eastern flank. This situation continued through 28 March, while during the night of 26-27 March the last of the non-motorized elements of the Italian XX Corps pulled out of the coastal sector and in one bound shifted to the Chott Position.

XXI Corps and Group von Liebenstein covered the withdrawal in the temporary position El Hamma-Gabes on 27 March. During the night of 28-29 March a British armored force from the south threatened to cut off Group von Liebenstein after pushing in one flank of the 15th Panzer Division and thus gaining access to the area east of Djebel Halouga. During the night the Axis line, under considerable moonlight bombing, was pulled back north of El Hamma and Gabes, and on the following night, pulled back into the Chott Position. The battle of the Mareth Position had been won.

Ahead of the mobile German units, the Italians had been organized on a new defensive line. The 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, and part of the 90th Light Africa Division, went to an area west and southwest of Cekhira as army reserves, and reinforcements were soon going to the aid of the 10th Panzer Division near El Guettar. On 29 March, El Hamma and Gabes were in Allied hands. By the next evening, the most advanced Allied elements were in close proximity to the Chott Position.

[NOTE 89-07NA8: The reinforcements were the Panzer Grenadier Regiment Afrika on 29 March and, from the 21st Panzer Division, first one light and then a heavy artillery battalion and by 31 March the entire 21st Panzer Division. German CoS, First Italian Army, KTB, 26-31 Mar 43.]

British Empire Army took about 7,000 prisoners before winning the Mareth Position. These losses had further sapped the resources of a badly equipped Axis force. Furthermore, the British had driven the enemy farther toward the ultimate constriction in northeastern Tunisia which General Alexander had been planning since he took command of 18 Army Group. But somewhat offsetting these gains for the moment was the fact that once again the defenders of a fixed position had escaped the tentacles of a flanking attack by Eighth Army’s armored elements and had pulled back under orders of the high command. Could they now hold in the Chott Position at the Akarit wadi, the position that Rommel had favored in case the troops were not to shift all the way from Libya to northeastern Tunisia?

The two forces which had just concluded the major battle south and southwest of Gabes now spent a week preparing for a second set battle just north of the town at the Chott Position. Along this portion of the coastal plain, the corridor narrows to a short strip about fifteen miles wide, more than half of which is screened by a semicircle of low hills with precipitous slopes separated by narrow gaps. Across the narrows, the Akarit wadi has worn a trench extending inland about three miles from the sea before becoming so shallow as to constitute a minor dip in the surface. Although shorter than the Zigzaou wadi, in the Mareth Position, the Akarit is for the most part wider and deeper.

Overlapping its western end and extending to the nearest hill, Djebel el Roumana (170), was a tank ditch which the enemy had dug across the plain. Other shorter trenches zigzagged across the entrances to the openings between the various hills in the semicircle. Against tanks which might succeed in pushing through the defile at the southwestern end of Djebel er Roumana and then start along its western side, the enemy, using obstacles, had strengthened a series of parallel wadies to form a dangerous area for the armored vehicles, an area difficult to cross and subject to fire from numerous antitank guns. A large double belt of mines from east to west in front of the Akarit wadi and its western extension was supplemented at other critical points by smaller mine fields.

Comando Supremo’s preference for the Mareth Position had delayed measures to complete an interrelated system of barriers and protecting fire positions. With scarce construction materials sent to Mareth, the Chott Position had been only partly developed.

Although it was strong, and although the enemy used the week after the lIvIareth Line was abandoned to make it even stronger, the position required much more work before full use could be made of its natural advantages. It also lacked depth. The threat of attack from the direction of El Guettar or Maknassy against the rear contributed to its vulnerability.

Axis units were disposed in the Akarit position almost as they had been at Mareth. The only difference was that the 90th Light Africa Division was this time inserted between the Young Fascists Division on the coast and the Trieste Division on the eastern portion of Djebel er Roumana, since the main highway passed nearer the shore than at Mareth. Farther to the west was the Spezia Division. The whole sector from the coast to Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa was under the command of the Italian XX Corps.

Strung out along a much wider sector ranging across the hills as far as Djebel el Stah (318) were the Pistoia Division, covering the vital defile through which passed the road to El Guettar and Gafsa; next to it, from Djebel Haidoudi (285) to the west, the remnants of the 164th Light Africa Division, now completely immobile; and at the extreme west flank, General Mannerini’s Raggruppamento Sahariano. Some five miles to the north, on the boundary between XX and XXI Corps, was the 15th Panzer Division. The 21st Panzer Division, it will be remembered, had been sent to El Guettar in support of the 10th Panzer and Centauro Divisions which were fighting to hold back the U.S. II Corps. General Messe’s troops were supported by nine batteries of 88-mm. dual-purpose guns (19th Flak Division), placed to bolster the rather weak defenses, and execute both air and ground missions. F our more heavy batteries, with air missions, were placed farther north, along the coast.

The enemy was low in artillery ammunition, while his infantry had less than one full unit of fire. The general terrain formation, the nature of the Allied advance up to 4 April, and the area of impact of the Allied artillery, pointed to a main Allied effort against, and on each side of, Djebel el Roumana, despite the barriers of ditches, mines, and obstacles. Night infantry attacks against the heights with simultaneous or subsequent tank thrusts on both sides were to be expected, as well as local attacks against the passes farther west. Division Trieste held the eastern half and the Division Spezia, the western half of this principal hill.

The Enemy Is Driven to Northeastern Tunisia

After ascertaining on 31 March through reconnaissance attacks by British 10 Corps that the wadi could be forced, although at considerable cost, Eighth Army stopped to regroup. The attack was to be made by 30 Corps, using three divisions to gain a bridgehead for the British 10 Corps, with a division employed to feign an attack. Nearly 500 British tanks were put in readiness.

Although the heavy pace of the Allied air attacks on the enemy warned him to expect the attack soon, he realized that it would have to be made at night to avoid observation of even its earliest stages. He therefore expected that it would not begin until after 15 April, when the moon would again be favorable. Actually, General Montgomery had determined not to wait for a moonlit night but to attack in darkness. Montgomery thus attained surprise, for although the enemy had correctly divined the intended zone of British main effort, he had not expected it to come so soon.

The assault began at 0500, 6 April, with the British 51st Division advancing on the right, the British 50th Division in the center, and the 4th Indian Division on the left, all west of the coastal road and through the Trieste, Spezia, and Pistoia Divisions sectors. The scope of the attack was thus west of the deeper part of the Akarit wadi. The troops and vehicles crossed lesser tributary stream beds draining northeasterly under the thunderous cover of about 450 British guns firing on targets directly ahead of them. The main thrusts at first were on Djebel el Roumana and its companion hillock to the northeast (Hill 112), and against high points of a ridge to the southwest (mainly Hill 275). In the center advance by the 50th Division was held up by the antitank ditch which ran squarely across its path, and only during the middle of the day could this division gain its objective.

By that time, with many of the Italians readily surrendering, the attack had spread west along the hills. But counterattacks by the 90th Light Africa Division by noon restored to the Axis control over Djebel el Roumana and most of the ridge dominated by Hill 275. The main body of DAK, Army Group Africa’s only reserve, was still tied down in the battles at EI Guettar. But what little armor remained available to DAK was released to General Messe at 0930, 6 April. Toward noon General von Arnim arrived at the headquarters of the First Italian Army. Concluding that the time for a general withdrawal had not yet arrived, he took immediate steps to improve the Axis situation. From the Fifth Panzer Army sector he ordered the 47th Grenadier Regiment sent to reinforce Bayerlein’s German units. He also directed General Messe to supply transport for the 164th Light Africa Division. now immobilized in positions far to the west of the Allied attack sector, so that the division could be committed where it was needed. The counterattack, then in progress against Hill 275, was to be relentlessly continued to regain the vital defile beyond it. To make General Bayerlein’s authority complete, von Arnim authorized him to issue orders to German troops in the army group commander’s name.

In the afternoon, the 15th Panzer Division counterattacked and contained elements of British 10 Corps which had penetrated deep into the Division Trieste’s sector. Meanwhile the 200th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 90th Light Africa Division which had recaptured most of Djebel el Roumana, was forced into the defense and finally, after running out of ammunition, withdrew from the dominating hill. In the afternoon the German defenders were exhausted by their efforts without having been able to restore the original defensive line. The time for another large-scale withdrawal had come. The next day’s battle thus promised success to Eighth Army in breaking out of its bridgehead in the defensive positions, and in exploiting this break with armor on the plain beyond.

Orders had already specified the separate lines of advance up the coast which the major units were to follow in the pursuit. The Axis command was aware of the prospects. The enemy’s division and artillery commanders reported to First Italian Army as early as 1700,6 April, that they could not hold another day. Generals Messe and Bayerlein both supported this view in reporting to Army Group Africa. Three hours later, the orders to withdraw during the night were received. While the mobile elements rode to their specified stations, large portions of the 90th and 164th Light Africa Divisions were obliged to march on foot.

Eighth Army opened the pursuit at about 1000, 7 April, with 30 Corps to the east and 10 Corps inland. At the same time some 7,000 prisoners were conducted from the battlefield to enclosures. The defensive position, in spite of its many natural advantages, had thus succumbed with startling swiftness to an attack made in superior strength, and with fierce resolution and unremitting pressure. It was a particularly frustrating battle for the Germans, who were inclined to attribute the defeat to their Italian allies, blaming the troops for not fighting and the command for ineffective leadership. But in view of the powerful British attack an impartial observer might well question whether even the best led force could have offered effective resistance with the means then available to the First Italian Army.

Eighth Army pursued the Axis forces up the coastal plain toward Enfidaville, 150 miles away, for the next five days. Its strength in operational tanks (almost 400), guns (600), antitank guns (950), and antiaircraft (490) was overwhelming. The airline distance of the pursuit was greatly extended by continuous maneuvering. The Italian troops went ahead, covered by the German units. The British 30 Corps carried out the pursuit with the 51st Division, 23rd Armoured Brigade, 201st Guards Brigade, and the 7th Armoured Division. The 50th and 4th Indian Divisions were left behind to reorganize the area from El Hamma to the sea. Advancing along the coastal road the 30th Corps found its path barred by the 90th Light Africa Division on the east and the 164th Light African Division in the center, while British 10 Corps (1st Armoured Division, 2nd New Zealand Division, and 8th Armoured Brigade, attached) contended with the 15th Panzer Division, reinforced by a Tiger tank battalion, on the inland flank. At the extreme west, the troops of General Cramer’s German Africa Corps which had been engaged at El Guettar and Maknassy, or were in the hills farther north, pulled out of the battle areas in time to keep ahead of pursuit.

The German troops of First Italian Army were controlled completely and directly by their chief, General Bayerlein, under instructions received from Army Group Africa. General Messe seems to have been generally notified of action already taken rather than presented with matters for his decision. The enemy crossed the Sfax-Faid road shortly after noon, 9 April. While Sfax was still being evacuated, a threat by the British First Army from Fondouk el Aouareb against Kairouan caused General Bayerlein to string out his troops from northwest to southeast throughout the following night.

British troops took Sfax on the morning of 10 April, and maintained light pressure until late in the evening on German troops south and southwest of Sousse. That night, the enemy troops shifted northwest of that port, and late on 11 April, they began arriving at the outlying defenses of the so-called Enfidaville position. British 9 Corps found Kairouan undefended. British 10 Corps shoved aside rear guards to capture Sousse at 0800 on 12 April. At the same time, 10 Corps established contact with the British 6th Armoured Division near Kairouan, and before nightfall on 13 April, forward elements of the 10 Corps had thrust to four miles south-southwest of Enfidaville, where they were stopped by German artillery. By 13 April, then, the Allied line faced an enemy concentrated in northeastern Tunisia. Contact was made at points extending from Enfidaville on the southeast through Pont-du-Fahs and Medjez el Bab to Sed jenane.

The Eighth Army’s operations had seriously cut down the strength of Italian First Army. Ammunition was critically low, the replacement troops could not be furnished with all normal weapons, and morale was naturally shaken. However, the enemy command felt relieved that the Allies had failed to take advantage of the retreat to destroy Messe’s army.

The line to which these troops had been withdrawn consisted at best of rudimentary defensive works. On 10 April, General Messe recommended to General von Arnim that the line be drawn back somewhat into the foothills, but von Arnim refused. General Bayerlein then set forth his own estimate, that the Enfidaville position was such only in name, and that with the supplies of ammunition so limited it simply could not be held. Finally, on 14 April, General von Arnim, after having inspected the positions himself, agreed. He also directed that Italian and German units should be interspersed, and he sustained General Bayerlein in a disagreement with General Messe over which division should have the mission of defending the coastal road to Enfidaville. Accordingly, instead of the Young Fascists Division, the 90th Light Africa Division was committed there. During the next fortnight, the Eighth Army was to engage in some hard fighting but, for the present, the story of its activities must be left in order to consider what had been happening during the past month along the deep western flank and in the Eastern Dorsal.

[NOTE 6-49KT:. First Italian Army was reduced by 10 April 1943 as follows: Division Young Fascists 5 battalions (much depleted) and 27 guns Division Trieste 4 battalions (much depleted) and 29 guns Division Pistoia 2 battalions (being reconstituted) and 31 guns Divisions Centauro and Spezia practically destroyed Corps and army artillery 7 105-mm. and 10 149-mm. guns 90th and 164th Light Africa Divisions together they equal one infantry division (-) 15th Panzer Division equal to a combat team Army artillery a few heavy batteries Heavy antiaircraft 7 batteries (approximately)]

SOURCE: Northwest Africa: Seizing The Initiative In The West; by George F. Howe (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: North Africa (6-28); Gafsa, Maknassy, and El Guettar (17-25 March)

World War Two: North Africa (6-26); Tunisia-Axis Strives To Retain the Initiative