The Middle East
Mareth And Beyond
General Montgomery devised two alternative plans for overcoming the Mareth Line. Obviously it would be quicker to breach the Line with a frontal attack, so he planned an assault using the 50th (Northumbrian) Division supported by the 1st Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions. Should this fail he planned to simultaneously dispatch the 2nd New Zealand Division, reinforced by the 8th Armoured Brigade, on a wide left hook, led by General Leclerc’s largely Free French L Force, which had come up from the southern Libyan Desert. The outflanking movement’s route had been discovered by the Long Range Desert Group, the second-in-command of this group at the time being Major David Lloyd Owen, who had previously served with the 2nd Battalion. Before 50th Division’s assault could take place several smaller operations were necessary to eliminate enemy covering positions, the principal operation being an attack on the Zemoula circle of hills, known as ‘Horseshoe’, which overlooked almost the whole length of Wadi Zigzaou. This attack was allotted to the 201st Guards Brigade, with the Queen’s Brigade providing a flank guard on the Guards Brigade’s left. The 1/6th Queen’s were on the right next to the 3rd Coldstream Guards, with the 1/7th on the left and the 1/5th in reserve,
The Guards’ attack was launched on the night of the 16th/17th March. Unfortunately it ran into two unknown minefields, and although the two forward battalions persevered with the greatest gallantry, they suffered very heavy losses. The battalions of 201 Brigade were organised as motor battalions with an establishment of only three rifle companies, and this experience demonstrated that motor battalions were not suitable for carrying out formal dismounted infantry attacks. Although they succeeded in capturing most of their objectives within the first 90 minutes of the attack, they had to bypass several pockets of the enemy because of insufficient support from the reserve companies. This had the effect of preventing the battalions’ support weapons being brought forward. The 6th Grenadiers suffered 278 casualties, including 27 of the 34 officers engaged, the majority being killed or captured. 3rd Coldstream’s casualties were 11 officers and 148 other ranks. The attack was called off at daybreak under cover of a smoke-screen and with what support 1/6th Queen’s could provide with machine-gun and mortar fire. When the Guards had withdrawn the 1/6th was very exposed, any movement bringing down heavy artillery fire, and there were a number of casualties. Later both brigades were brought back to the east of the Medenine-Mareth road, though the 1/6th left two platoons as outposts in their former positions. During the next four days it fell to the Queen’s Brigade to give the enemy the impression that this front was still fully active and that further attacks were pending. Strong patrols were sent forward especially to the Horseshoe. On the night of the 19th/20th the Battle Patrol of the 1/6th under Lt P. Kime reached the top of Horseshoe and wandered about on it for an hour, firing and throwing bombs, without meeting any enemy and coming only under some fixed line machine-gun fire. The following night the big assault by 50th Division started, and the 7th Armoured Division reverted to XXX Corps, moving south into reserve. The Queen’s Brigade reoccupied their old positions of the Medenine battle.
50th Division’s attack was fiercely counter-attacked by 15th Panzer on the 22nd March and Montgomery decided to put everything into Major General Freyberg’s turning movement with his New Zealanders. He ordered 1st Armoured Division to follow along Freyberg’s route and join him as quickly as possible with a view to pushing on to El Hamma and Gabes. At the same time he ordered the 4th Indian Division to clear the Hallouf Pass and press on down the Bir Soltane road in order to secure a shorter route for reinforcements to follow in support of Freyberg’s advance. This revised plan did not get off to a good start when X Corps HQ and 1st Armoured Division became snarled up with the 4th Indian in Medenine town. The 4th Indian had to hold back, and could not get moving until daylight on the 24th, so they were unable to mount their attack on the Hallouf Pass until that evening. However, they had cleared the Pass by nightfall of the 25th, pushing the German 164th Light Division northwards. The 7th Armoured Division were then ordered to follow up the 4th Indian Division and strike north in pursuit of the 164th Division through the Merbah El Ossif Pass and on towards Toujane.
At 5.15am on the 27th March 1/5th Queen’s started the advance on the pass across country on a bearing of 306 degrees magnetic. The Battalion crossed their second report line, codenamed ‘February’, before meeting any opposition, but on crossing ‘March’ the carriers encountered some stiff defensive fire and the forward troops were pinned down. The 3rd Royal Horse Artillery were soon into action and this opposition was silenced. In the afternoon the Carrier Platoon with the 40th Royal Tank Regiment pushed through heavily mined ground to the pass, and the 1/7th Queen’s moved up in support. Before dark ‘B’ Company, 1/5th Queen’s, occupied the pass, to find it heavily mined too. Casualties were light, 2 men being killed and 8 wounded, with the 40th Royal Tank Regiment losing three tanks. The attacks on the left and the right flanks in support were also successful.
At the same time that 1/5th Queen’s began their advance on the Merbah El Ossif Pass, the 2nd New Zealand and 1st Armoured Divisions broke through the Axis switch line, set up to face the outflanking movement at Tebaga Gap, and drove for El Hamma. This caused the enemy to pull out of the Mareth Line positions during the night of the 27th/28th March, and it was only the extraordinary German ability to improvise a mobile defence between the Tebaga Gap and El Hamma that prevented the First Italian Army from being cut off. Consequently when at first light the rest of 1/5th Queen’s moved up to the pass, the enemy had withdrawn along the whole front. Over 60 prisoners came in, all from the Pistoia Division, and by midday Capt Tweedie had led a party on foot over the hills and taken over the village of Toujane. However, there were so many mines in the battalion area that there were numerous casualties, not only of Queen’s personnel, but also amongst sappers and tank crews. It was decided, therefore, to move back into a brigade concentration area until the route was cleared. On the 31st March the Queen’s Brigade drove forward through the Matmata Hills to El Mdou, a few miles south-west of Gabes, where the 7th Armoured Division concentrated as the XXX Corps reserve. Here it was possible to carry out some training for the first time for many months. The 1/5th had time to do a battalion exercise cooperating with tanks in the area of Wadi Hadjar, the exercise taking the form of a rapid three pronged attack through hastily prepared defences. A new feature was the towing of anti-tank guns by tanks.
Considerable drafts of reinforcements reached all the battalions, so the 1/6th and 1/7th Queen’s were both able to reform their ‘D’ Companies, which had been in abeyance for some time. Lt Col R.H. Senior, DSO, of the 1/7th, was promoted to command a brigade of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division, and was succeeded by Lt Col D.S. Gordon of the Green Howards, who had been the popular Brigade Major of the Queen’s Brigade. Major John Freeland, who had served with the 2nd Battalion in Tobruk, succeeded Lt Col Gordon as Brigade Major.
The Eighth Army followed up the withdrawing First Italian Army so quickly that by the 1st April they had closed up to the Axis defences at Wadi Akarit, about 17 miles north of Gabes. This position, like the Mareth Line, was based on a wadi which made a natural anti-tank ditch, but in this case it only extended about three miles in from the coast before running into a line of hills through which a number of passes ran. The defences followed the line of these hills in a south-westerly direction before resting on the gap between the hills and the impassible salt lake, called the Shott el Fedjadj, through which the Gabes-Gafsa road passed. Thereafter the Axis positions extended for another 20 miles or so westwards behind the barrier of the salt lake.
On the 26th March Lieut-General George S. Patton, who had recently taken over command of the US II Corps, was ordered by General Alexander to concentrate on linking up with the Eighth Army by thrusting towards Gabes from El Guettar. This offensive by the Americans effectively tied down the German 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions and the 164th Light Division, leaving Messe with only his Italian infantry, reinforced by the 90th Light Division, to hold the 15 miles between the coast and the Shott el Fedjadj, with only the 15th Panzer as a mobile reserve.
Because, once again, the Eighth Army was completely overlooked in the open country to the south of Wadi Akarit, Montgomery decided that there would have to be another night attack using the 50th (Northumbrian), the 51st (Highland) and the 4th Indian Divisions, with the 7th Armoured Division in support to exploit the breakthrough on the left of the 51st Division, which would take the coast road to Mahares. However, the next full moon was not until the 16th April, and Montgomery could not afford to wait that long, so he resolved to attack whilst it was still dark at 4am on the 6th April, which would achieve surprise, but would also provide the maximum of daylight in which to exploit success. This plan was refined after reconnaissances carried out by Major-General Wimberley, GOC 51st Division, and Major-General Tuker of 4th Indian, when it was agreed that the 7th Indian Brigade should carry out a silent attack to occupy the rocky massif on the left flank, consisting of the Djebels Fatnassa and El Meida, before the main attack went in at 4.15am on the Roumana Ridge, four miles in from the coast.
Certainly the enemy was surprised, with large numbers of prisoners being taken with their boots off! As soon as darkness fell on the 5th April the 7th Indian Brigade began its approach march, and the 1/2nd Gurkha Rifles made an amazing attack on the Djebel Fatnassa position using kukris only, and occupying it in pitch darkness by 2am, two and a half hours earlier than their divisional commander had forecast. The 1st Royal Sussex, on the Gurkhas’ right, cleared all before them too, having been guided only by occasional artillery fire because the Djebel El Meida did not show up well in the dark. When the 51st Division assaulted the Roumana Ridge behind the artillery barrage at 4.15am the position quickly fell into their hands, although a German counter-attack drove them off the vital Point 112. Unfortunately the enemy artillery fire, directed from Point 112, particularly harrassed the Highlanders, and the 4th County of London Yeomanry recorded that the shelling was so bad that the tank commanders could not put their heads out of their turrets. This meant that the armour could not be released as planned, and the Eighth Army endured another frustrating battle waiting for the enemy to pull out before they could be encircled. General Messe ordered total withdrawal covered by aggressive patrolling during the night of the 6th/7th April, and by next morning the Axis forces had gone.
With the 1/5th Queen’s leading,the Queen’s Brigade followed 22nd Armoured Brigade through the battlefield past the Roumana Ridge, where there were large numbers of prisoners, and everywhere were abandoned vehicles, guns and equipment. However, the going was so difficult from mines and the soft wadis, only 18 miles had been covered by the end of the 8th. Nonetheless, the day before the armoured cars of the 12th Lancers had made contact with Patton’s US II Corps, resulting in the first proper link-up between the First and Eighth Armies.
On the 9th April the Queen’s Brigade reached the olive groves west of Mahares, which had been captured by the 51st Division, and there formed an anti-tank screen. The country was a complete contrast from the desert, being covered with spring greenery and pleasant to the eye, The next day the Brigade advanced about forty miles to an area about ten miles west of Sfax. Sfax itself was captured by the 11th Hussars, but there were no signs of any enemy forces in the neighbourhood, and the pursuit was handed over to X Corps, with 7th Armoured and 51st (Highland) Divisions being halted and placed in reserve. Recreation parties went into Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city, where there was excellent bathing, The port had been badly battered by the RAF, but the city retained most of its interesting sights, with its ancient kasbah and ramparts dating back to the ninth century alongside an attractive example of European town-planning. The reception from the French was enthusiastic, although the Arabs tended to be rather more reserved.
On the 13th April the 7th Armoured Division moved forward to a concentration area close to Kairouan, a long drive of over 70 miles. Here the Queen’s Brigade met American troops for the first time. The Americans were thrilled at meeting the legendary ‘Desert Rats’, and the British returned the compliment in an appropriately aloof manner, if only to perpetuate the legend. Alan Moorehead, the famous war correspondent, wrote at the time:-
“The British desert soldier looked like no other soldier in the world. He looked at first sight like a rather rakish and dishevelled boy scout, the effect, I suppose, of his bleached khaki shorts and shirts and the paraphernalia of blackened pots and pans and oddments he carried round in his vehicle which was his home. He practically never wore a helmet, and he had a careless loose-limbed way of walking which came from living on the open plains.” Moorehead went on to claim that the Eighth Army was no longer a European army. Cut off from Europe for years, it had become an overseas army, based on Cairo. It had developed private habits and even its own slang language. It had been encouraged by Montgomery to consider itself as invincible, even to the point of becoming, he wrote, “a private expeditionary force knowing no law except its own.” Those who did not belong to the Eighth Army were inevitably outsiders. To the Eighth Army the British First Army appeared a parade-ground army. First Army soldiers found the men of the Eighth Army loud and over-confident.
These were immediate impressions. They were memorably expressed by a tank crew of the 9th Lancers, who, on seeing some First Army troops in regulation battledress and steel helmets, exclaimed: “My God, soldiers!” However, as experiences were shared, differences became blurred, particularly when elements of the Eighth Army became integral parts of the First Army. In rest areas, and when Allied soldiers were otherwise thrown together accidentally, comradeship was easily established. One thing that the Eighth Army taught the First Army was its characteristic philosophy: “When in doubt, brew up.”
Two days after making the acquaintance of the Americans the Queen’s Brigade moved first by MT and then on foot to positions about 20 miles north of Kairouan and 12 miles west of Enfidaville, on the main road running north to Pont du Fahs. In this position the 7th Armoured Division was on the extreme left of the Eighth Army, and maintained touch with the XIX French Corps on their left. The enemy was situated on the higher ground to the north overlooking the Queen’s positions, equipped with a number of guns, some of which were self-propelled and which were moved frequently, so that all the battalions were heavily shelled and suffered casualties. It had become clear by this time that the enemy’s positions from Enfidaville westwards towards Pont du Fahs were of tremendous natural strength, although he did appear to be short of infantry, having lost 14,000 prisoners in the defence of Wadi Akarit. It was decided that the first stage of the operation should be to secure the foothills around the village of Takrouna and capture the Djebel Garci feature, objectives which were given to the 2nd New Zealand Division and the 4th Indian Division respectively. 7th Armoured were to protect the left flank of these attacks, which meant that the Queen’s Brigade had to move about five miles further east in order to carry out a subsidiary attack against the Djebel El Sataur, yet another semi-circle of hills christened ‘Horseshoe’, to the west of the main attacks. The move was completed over two days on the 17th-18th April, with the attack planned to take place after dark on the night of the 19th.
The main task was allocated to 1/6th Queen’s, with 1/5th Queen’s in support echeloned back on the right, and the 1/7th to the left rear. The task was not an easy one since the start line, the Enfidaville-Djebebina road, was over two miles from the battalion’s day position, and it was another 5,000 yards, over very hilly and difficult country, to the objective. Some 400 yards short of the start line to the right of the advance was a hill, Point 161, which was known to be held by the enemy. Lt Kime with the 1/6th’s Battle Patrol had visited it on the night of the 17th, had surprised the enemy digging in, and captured two prisoners; and the next night another patrol from ‘B’ Company under Lt Warren had found it occupied by at least a platoon. On the night of the attack, therefore, Peter Kime’s Battle Patrol and 12 Platoon under Sgt Cole were to neutralize Point 161 before the Battalion advanced, and then hand over to the 1/5th when they came through. The whole operation was to be a silent attack, although a FOO was allotted to 1/6th Queen’s if artillery support was required.
The attack started at 9.30pm with ‘D’ and ‘A’ Companies forward, and ‘C’ and ‘B’ Companies in support. They waited 20 minutes on the start line for news of Point 161, but not a sound was heard, so Lt Col Thicknesse decided to carry on and, despite the distance and the broken ground, the Battalion reached the foot of the Horseshoe by 1.00 am. Here enemy machine-guns, opened up, to be followed by mortar and 88mm artillery fire. Unfortunately the FOO had lost touch with the Battalion, so the Battalion could not bring down supporting fire. It became obvious that it would not be possible to capture the position and bring up the support weapons before daylight. The Commanding Officer reluctantly decided to call off the attack, therefore, and withdraw to the ridge about a mile behind just north of the road. The withdrawal was skilfully carried out with ‘D’ and ‘A’ Companies retiring through their supports, and a hasty defence was organised on the ridge. The whole operation had been so well controlled and so silent that it is thought that the enemy never realised that an attack was threatened, but suspected only a patrol. Meanwhile the 1/5th Queen’s had taken over the responsibility for Point 161, and eventually occupied it, but unluckily, when Lt Kime sent 12 Platoon off to rejoin the Battalion, it lost its way in the darkness, wandered into an enemy position and was captured. 1/5th Queen’s also occupied the area of a mosque just behind the ridge, whilst 1/7th Queen’s occupied a position on the left without opposition.
The main attacks on the right had met with only moderate success. The New Zealanders captured Takrouna, perched on its 600ft high rocky outcrop, just after dawn, following an incredible feat of endurance by 13 men of the 28th Maori Battalion, led by Lance-Sergeant Manahi, and a few reinforcements managed to join up with him. Likewise the 4th Indian reached the top of the Djebel Garci, but the Germans and Italians fiercely counter-attacked every time they lost a vital piece of ground. During the 20th, 21st and 22nd April no less than 38 counter-attacks had to be beaten off by the two divisions, thanks to the supporting fire of seven Field and three Medium Regiments RA. By the 22nd April both divisions were exhausted and were relieved by the 51st (Highland) Division, but further advances were out of the question without suffering unacceptable casualties. The only bright spot was that 50th Division had managed to capture Enfidaville itself, but had only progressed a short distance northwards up the coast road. The front was stabilized, therefore, and the plan to outflank the enemy through the hills to the west of Enfidaville was abandoned. The Queen’s Brigade remained where it was, except that the 1/6th was pulled back from its exposed position on the ridge into reserve behind the other two battalions. There was a good deal of shelling and some active patrolling.
On the 27th April the Brigade moved out at night, rejoined its transport and moved to a position south-west of Enfidaville, where it received a warning order to prepare for a renewed attack northwards along the coastal strip towards Hammamet. However, General Alexander decided at this stage that owing to the extreme difficulties of the ground and the fact that the enemy had concentrated a strong force of guns against the Eighth Army, further large-scale operations should be cancelled, and that the Eighth Army should undertake local actions only, aimed at preventing the enemy transferring troops over to the First Army front. Furthermore, Alexander directed, with Montgomery’s agreement, that the 4th Indian Division, the 7th Armoured Division and 201st Guards Brigade should be transferred to the First Army with immediate effect.
So on the evening of the 30th April the 1/5th Queen’s moved off on a long journey through the hills to the north-west via Kairouan to Ousseltia. The 1/6th and 1/7th Queen’s followed next day. 7th Armoured Division’s ‘loan service’ with the First Army was about to begin.