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.
Axis retreat from El Alamein
The retreat of the Panzer Army Africa (Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee or Armata Corazzata Italo-Tedesca from October 1942) took place from 5 November 1942 – 15 February 1943 and on 8 November Operation Torch began in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Panzer Army Africa evaded British outflanking moves but traffic jams, fuel shortage, poor weather and air attacks reduced the retreat to 6–7 miles (9.7–11.3 km) per day. Comando Supremo in Rome and OKW in Berlin took an optimistic view of the situation and Comando Supremo chose the Mersa-el-Brega–El Agheila position as the terminus of the retreat, despite the position having a front of 110 miles (180 km), strong points up to 5 miles (8.0 km) apart, too far for mutual support and only 30,000 mines being available. When the Panzer Army arrived the Afrika Korps had only 5,000 men, 35 × tanks, 16 × armoured cars, 12 × anti-tank guns, 12 × field howitzers and deliveries of only 50 long tons (51 t) of the 400 long tons (410 t) of supplies needed daily.
Rommel wanted retreat to Wadi Akarit in the Gabès area, 120 miles (190 km) further west, where the non-motorised troops could defend the narrow gap between the Mediterranean and the Chott Djerid. The tanks and motorised infantry would join the 5th Panzer Army (Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim) further north, drive back the First Army from Tunisia into Algeria, then swiftly return to force back the Eighth Army, preparatory to embarkation for Europe. At a meeting with Hitler on 28 November, Rommel discussed the proposal but only received a promise of more supplies. On the night of 11/12 December, the British attacked and on the following evening the Panzer Army resumed its retreat and despite the chronic fuel shortage evaded another outflanking move. The Panzer Army took up a defensive position at Buerat on 29 December but this was poorly fortified, wide open to an outflanking manoeuvre and vulnerable to being cut off by an attack on Gabès by the First Army from southern Tunisia. The supply situation was little better, with 152 long tons (154 t) tons of the 400-long-ton (410 t) daily requirement being delivered and 95 percent of the fuel being used to distribute supplies or for withdrawals.
The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) attacked Axis supply lines and hundreds of lorries were stranded along roads for lack of fuel, while the Eighth Army massed fuel and ammunition for its next attack. On 13 January 1943, the infantry of the 21st Panzer Division was sent north to the 5th Panzer Army to guard against the loss of Gabès and on 15 January, the Eighth Army attacked with 450 tanks against 36 German and 57 Italian tanks; in the evening Rommel ordered another withdrawal. Lack of fuel and apprehension about the threat to Gabès, led to the retreat passing beyond the Tarhuna–Homs line and Tripoli was occupied by the British on 23 January, the retreat from El Alamein having covered 1,400 miles (2,300 km). On 13 February, the last Axis soldiers left Libya and on 15 February, the rearguard reached the Mareth Line 80 miles (130 km) inside Tunisia. Comando Supremo intended that the line would be held indefinitely but Rommel considered to be too vulnerable to another flanking move, unlike the Wadi Akarit position, another 40 miles (64 km) back.
Long before the Eighth Army reached the Tripoli, thought had been given to an attack on the Mareth line and the LRDG had been sent to survey the land south of the Matmata Hills. Despite maps and reports indicating that the ground was impossible for tanks and lorrries, the LRDG found a route inland southwards and around the hills to the Tebaga Gap, between the Chott el Fejaj salt marsh and the hills. The 7th Armoured Division (General George Erskine) had probed forward from Tripoli, while the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division (Major-General Douglas Wimberley) and the 2nd New Zealand Division (Major General Bernard Freyberg) rested at the port. Winter rains turned the ground into swamps until 15 February and the 7th Armoured and 51st (Highland) divisions then moved forward and captured airfields at Medenine on 17 February. Next day the Free French Flying Column (FFFC) and the 1st Infantry Battalion Marine and Pacific (1 IBMP) arrived with General Philippe Leclerc, after a long march across the Sand Sea from Lake Chad to join the Eighth Army. XXX Corps brough the 2nd New Zealand Division forward from Tripoli, which had the 8th Armoured Brigade and the 201st Guards Brigade under command.
The Allied codebreakers of the Government Code and Cipher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park in England, read Axis Enigma codes and gave notice that Rommel had ordered the termination of the Axis attacks against the First Army at the Battle of Kasserine Pass (19–24 February) on 25 February. On 28 February, GCCS decrypted orders from Rommel for a reconnaissance to be conducted by the 1st Army, preparatory to an attack on the Eighth Army by 4 March; a fuel return on 1 March, showed that the Axis forces had sufficient for a three-day operation. On 26 February, the Eight Army had only about one division at Medenine, most of the tanks were with X Corps at Benghazi and it was not expected that an attack on the Mareth line could be ready before 20 March. Montgomery thought that XXX Corps at Medenine, could not withstand an attack before 7 March but over three days and nights, reinforcements were rushed forward and by 4 March, 400 × tanks, 350 × field guns and 470 × anti-tank guns had arrived. The RAF had also increased the number of aircraft in the area to double that of the Axis air forces. At 5:36 a.m. on 6 March, GCCS sent notice to Montgomery of the thrust line of the attack and that it was to begin at 6:00 a.m.
Axis plan of attack
The Italian 1st Army (General Giovanni Messe) occupied the Mareth line with the 90th Light Division, 164th Light Afrika Division, and the 10th Panzer Division, 15th Panzer Division and the 21st Panzer Division of the Afrika Korps with about 200 tanks and the 80th Infantry Division La Spezia (Airlanding). After debate with Rommel and the divisional commanders, in early March Messe set the objective of the attack to be the envelopment and destruction of the British between the Mareth line and Medenine. A DAK Group (Generalleutnant Hans Cramer) with the three Afrika Korps panzer divisions, Reconnaissance Units 3 and 33, a battalion of the 164th Light Afrika Division, a parachute battalion, seven field artillery batteries and two anti-aircraft battalions and Column Bari (Generalleutnant Theodor von Sponeck) with two battalions of Panzergrenadier Regiment 200, two battalions of Panzergrenadier Regiment 361, the La Spezia and the Trieste battlegroups with two battalions each, a battery of German field guns and several Nebelwerfer, seven Italian field batteries and part of three anti-aircraft batteries; both columns had attached anti-tank and engineer units.
At about 6:00 a.m. on 6 March, under cover of fog, Rommel attacked Medenine with three Panzer divisions. Montgomery had been warned of the German attack by Enigma decrypts and had established strong defensive positions. The Eighth Army had massive force superiority, including many concealed batteries of anti-tank guns. These guns included a few of the new Ordnance QF 17 pounder guns. Infantry probed the 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 QF 25 pounder gun-howitzers opened fire on the infantry, leaving the tanks isolated without infantry support. At 8:30 a.m., a group of ten Panzer III tanks advancing on Tadjera Kbir, were surprised by two Ordnance QF 6 pounder anti-tank guns and mortars and half of the tanks were quickly destroyed and the rest withdrew.
From 9:00–10:00 a.m., artillery dispersed Axis troop concentrations. Another German force attempted to advance along the Foum Tatahouine–Medenine road but were repulsed. 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 including a troop of captured German 88 mm guns. The Luftwaffe made a maximum effort, despite a mist which inhibited the Desert Air Force but had no success in ground attacks on British infantry and attempts to dive-bomb artillery positions were thwarted by ground anti-aircraft fire. The attack had been defeated with the loss of 44–56 tanks; British casualties were "trifling".
During the night, patrols were sent out; 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 a withdrawal was in progress. There were rearguard actions from 7–8 March, as the Germans withdrew to the Mareth Line and Gabès. Allied attempts at pursuit were frustrated by the weather and the speed of the Axis withdrawal. The action was over by 10 March, although some heights were still occupied and there was sporadic long-range artillery fire. 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. There had been no reconnaissance, Allied artillery was well sited and camouflaged 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.
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.
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