Battle of Wadi Akarit
|Battle of Wadi Akarit|
|Part of the Tunisian Campaign of the Second World War|
Long focus picture showing tanks, prisoners & vehicles after the Eighth Army had broken through Gabès Gap
| United Kingdom
|Commanders and leaders|
|Bernard Montgomery||Giovanni Messe|
|3 Divisions||24,500, plus ten tanks[note 1]|
The Battle of Wadi Akarit (code-named Operation Scipio) was the successful Allied action on 6 and 7 April 1943 to dislodge Axis forces from their positions along the Wadi Akarit in Tunisia (also known as the Akarit Line). At this point, known as the Gabès Gap, north of the towns of Gabès and El Hamma, there is a narrow land gap between the sea and impassable salt marshes. In a pitched battle, elements of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division breached the defences and held a bridgehead, allowing the passage of their main force to roll-up the defences from the flanks. After determined, violent, but unsuccessful counter-attacks, the Axis forces withdrew and the Eighth Army continued their pursuit toward Tunis, until encountering heavily defended positions at Enfidaville.
Tunisia was strategically important as it allowed the Axis to challenge Allied efforts to route convoys through the Mediterranean, thus lengthening the supply lines between Britain and North America and the Indian Ocean. Their presence also threatened military actions against southern Europe and tied up Allied manpower.
After the Mareth Line in southern Tunisia had been outflanked by the "left-hook" attack through the Tebaga Gap, Axis forces had managed to avoid being trapped and had withdrawn to the Wadi Akarit, north of Gabès. This position had been identified long before by Erwin Rommel as a preferred defensive position; he had unsuccessfully argued with his superiors for a controlled withdrawal to it immediately after the Second Battle of El Alamein. He argued that it was the best opportunity for his forces to hold off the Eighth Army and thus prolong Axis presence in Africa: it had protected flanks and short supply routes to Sicily. He proposed that, with the British held off at Wadi Akarit and needing to bring forward men and materiel, all available troops in Tunisia could repulse the Allied First Army to the west before dealing a similar blow to Montgomery.
The Gabès Gap was the last readily defensible position before the Eighth Army reached the Tunisian city of Sfax and could form a continuous front with Allied forces advancing from the west.
Order of battle
- Eighth Army
- XXX Corps
- Held in reserve to exploit the breakthrough
- Italian First Army
The Italian First Army included the German Afrikakorps. German armoured units were used to strengthen the mass of Italian infantry, although the remnants of 15th Panzer Division (ten tanks) was the only armour immediately available; but other units could be brought in from elsewhere in Tunisia.
- XX Corps
- XXI Corps
- 15th Panzer Division, in reserve
The opposing forces faced each other along an east-west line, with the Mediterranean Sea in the east and the impassable salt marshes at Sebkret el Hamma (the eastern extremity of the Chott el Djerid) to the west. There was thus no option for a flanking action, as there had been at the Tebaga Gap nor to stretch the battlefield and thus disperse the defenders, as at El Alamein and subsequent battles. A frontal attack on prepared defences was unavoidable.
From the east, the line of defence followed the Wadi Akarit for five miles, here impassable to armour, then a wider section of dry wadi, backed by a long hill, the Djebel er Roumana, itself the last of a line of high ground that forms the northern boundary of the Chott. The approaches to Djebel er Roumana were impeded by an anti-tank ditch and there were more defence works to the west, although the broken ground itself was a significant obstacle.
Allied advance units had advanced through Oudref and reached the Wadi Akarit on 30 March, but limited their activity to patrols and probing the Axis defences.
Three divisions would form the initial assault: 51st Highland Division on the right, 50th Division in the centre and the 4th Indian Division on the left.
There was a concentrated artillery barrage.
In the opening stages of crossing the minefield and anti-tank ditch under darkness, the 7th Bn of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders captured their objective. In the course of holding the bridgehead their commander Lt-Col Lorne MacLaine Campbell earned a Victoria Cross for continuing to inspire and direct his unit despite being wounded.
At dawn on the following day, 6 April, it was found that the Axis forces had quietly withdrawn. The mobile 2nd New Zealand Division and 1st Armoured Division were released to pursue the withdrawing Italian and German troops. The pursuit crossed a coastal plain which changed from being open semi-desert to large olive groves which offered opportunities for ambush. There was, however, little resistance until close to Enfidaville, but prisoners, sometimes surprised to see Allied troops beyond the supposed front line, and large amounts of materiel (including previously captured US supplies) were taken. Neither pursuers nor pursued forced major actions, particularly if the opposition was too great, but at one point, the Greeks attached to the New Zealand Division attacked and destroyed a German tank. Although they had nothing but small arms, it's assumed that spare petrol cans had ignited.
In this way, some 140 miles (226 kilometres) north of Wadi Akarit were covered, including the towns of Sfax and Sousse. The Axis had chosen easily defensible positions north and west of Enfidaville which were not given up until the general surrender in north Africa.
- This estimate is of troops in the line at Wadi Akarit. The full strength of the Italian First Army at the time was 106,000.
- Stevens, Major-General W. G. (2008). "Bardia to Enfidaville: Enemy Dispositions". The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. Victoria University of Wellington. Retrieved 13 December 2010.
- Lewin, Ronald (2004). Rommel as Military Commander. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword. p. 192. ISBN 1-84415-040-2.
- Murphy, W. E. (2008). "2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery; Wadi Akarit". The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. Victoria University of Wellington. Retrieved 13 December 2010.
- Loughnan, R. J. M. (2008). "Divisional Cavalry: CHAPTER 17 — Tunisia". The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. pp. 278–285. Retrieved 17 December 2010.
- Stevens, Major-General W. G. (2008). "Bardia to Enfidaville: The Terrain". The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. Victoria University of Wellington. Retrieved 13 Dec 2010.