Battle of Medenine
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The Battle of Medenine, also known as Operation Capri, was a German counter-attack at Medenine, Tunisia, intended to disrupt and delay the British Eighth Army's attack on the Mareth Line. The German attack started on 6 March 1943, failed to make much impression and was abandoned at dusk on the same day. Over the next day or two, German forces withdrew northward.
After the Axis defeat at El Alamein, the German commander—Generalfeldmarshall Erwin Rommel—had executed a retreat into eastern Libya as the Allies advanced. This had been successful in that the Axis forces had avoided destruction.
Heeresgruppe Afrika was formed, with Rommel in command, including Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim′s 5. Panzerarmee and Generale Giovanni Messe′s Italian 1st Army which now included the German Afrika Korps.
Rommel faced the Eighth Army, which was now established at Medenine in eastern Tunisia and preparing for its assault on the Mareth Line.
The 51st (Highland) Division commanded by Major-General Douglas Wimberley, 7th Armoured Division (General George Erskine) and New Zealand 2nd Division (Bernard Freyberg) of the Eighth Army. The open southern flank was covered by the 4th Light Armoured Brigade, which included the Free French Flying Column (FFFC) and the 1st Infantry Battalion Marine and Pacific (1 IBMP).
Two German infantry divisions, the 90th and 164th Light Infantry Divisions, and the 10th, 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions of the Afrika Korps (estimated 200 tanks). The Spezia Division of the Italian 1st Army occupied the Mareth Line.
According to Associated Press war correspondent Don Whitehead, an Italian infantry battalion supported by 30 tanks in a preliminary action counterattacked in the British sector on 3 March, but lost half its strength killed to machine-gun fire:
Last night three companies of Italians followed by 30 tanks and lorried infantry attacked the Highlander's advance screen. The Jocks “mowed 'em down”—and didn't lose a man. The tanks and infantry scurried back to the safety of the hills. Half the Italians were killed.
At about 06:00 on 6 March, under cover of fog, Rommel attacked Medenine with three Panzer divisions. Montgomery had, however, been forewarned of the German attack by Enigma decrypts and had established strong defensive positions. The Eighth Army had massive force superiority, including large, concealed batteries of anti-tank guns. These guns included a few of the new 17-pounder (76 mm) guns. The British were also able to concentrate their artillery in divisional or corps strength.
Infantry probed the entire front. Tanks led the attack, closely followed by motorised infantry. The British and New Zealand artillery held their fire until the tanks were almost on the anti-tank guns, when their 25-pounder gun-howitzers opened fire on the infantry, leaving the tanks isolated without infantry support. At 08:30, a group of ten Panzer III tanks—advancing on Tadjera Kbir—were surprised by two 6-pounder anti-tank guns and mortars and half of the tanks were quickly destroyed. The enemy was beaten off and withdrew.
Between 09:00 and 10:00, artillery dispersed enemy troop concentrations.
Another German force attempted to advance along the Foum Tatahouine to Medenine road. They were contained by British forces.
During the afternoon, heavy and accurate artillery fire disrupted German concentrations, in particular a large group of 1,000 infantry plus tanks just short of Tadjera Kbir. The artillery included a troop of captured German 88 mm guns.
The attack had been beaten with the loss of 52 German tanks.
Luftwaffe attempts to support the attacks were ineffectual.
Over the following night, patrols were sent out to discover the likelihood of renewed attacks, but without incident. Over forty German tanks had been destroyed, so it was unlikely that they would have the strength for a repeat. Audible vehicle movements did suggest an attack, but in fact a withdrawal was in progress.
There were minor rearguard actions on 7–8 March, as the Germans withdrew to the Mareth Line and Gabès. Allied efforts to force further action were defeated by the weather and the speed of the withdrawal. The action was over by 10 March, although some heights were still occupied and there was sporadic long-range artillery fire.
Erwin Rommel remarked:
"The attack began extraordinarily well, but soon came up against strong British positions in hilly country, protected by mines and anti-tank guns…. Attack after attack was launched, but achieved no success…. it soon became clear that the attack had failed and there was nothing more to be done about it…. The attack had bogged down in the break-in stage and the action never had a chance of becoming fluid. The British commander had grouped his forces extremely well and had completed his preparations with remarkable speed. In fact the attack had been launched about a week too late…. We had suffered tremendous losses, including forty tanks totally destroyed. But the cruellest blow was the knowledge that we had been unable to interfere with Montgomery's preparations. A great gloom settled over us all. The Eighth Army's attack was now imminent and we had to face it. For the Army Group to remain in Africa was now plain suicide."
On 10 March, Rommel left Africa for the last time, leaving von Arnim in command. He had played little part in the planning or control of the battle. It showed. There had been no reconnaissance. Allied artillery was well hidden and well placed and the German tanks were unable to spot them. The defeat had been so comprehensive that it caused the Germans to question their security and Montgomery was rebuked for not taking greater steps to hide the source of his information.
On 6 March 1943, Montgomery wrote in a letter to Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff: "He is trying to attack me in daylight with tanks, followed by lorried infantry. I have 500 6pdr atk guns dug in...I have 400 tanks...good infantry...and a great weight of artillery. It is an absolute gift, and the man must be mad."
Allied plans for the attack on the Mareth Line continued, virtually undisturbed.
- Pimlott pg. 112
- Stout (1956), Chapter 11— "Tunisia. The Battle of Medenine" www.nzetc.org
- Combat Reporter: Don Whitehead's World War II Diary and Memoirs, p. 125, Fordham Univ Press, 2006
- Sebag-Montefiore, Hugh (2001). Enigma: The Battle of the Code. London: Phoenix. p. 277. ISBN 0-7538-1130-8.
- Fraser, David And We Shall Shock Them: The British Army in the Second World War 2011
- Stevens, W.G. (1962). "Chapter 7. The Medenine Incident". Bardia to Enfidaville. The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. Wellington: New Zealand Historical Publications Branch. Retrieved 2008-07-17.
- Stout, T. Duncan M. (1956). "Chapter 11—Tunisia: 3. The Battle of Medenine". New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy. The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. Wellington: New Zealand Historical Publications Branch. Retrieved 2008-07-17.
- Pimlott, John (1995). The Viking atlas of World War II. Viking. ISBN 9780670853731.