Battle of Wadi Akarit
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. 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 counter-attacks, the Axis forces withdrew and the Eighth Army continued a 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 Operation Supercharge II, a "left-hook" attack through the Tebaga Gap, Axis forces had managed to avoid being trapped and had withdrawn to the Wadi Akarit, north of Gabès.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.
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 the Second Battle of 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 5 miles (8.0 km), here impassable to armour, then a wider section of dry wadi, backed by a long hill, the Djebel er Roumana, 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 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 week before the battle, British and American bombers began round-the-clock attacks on the defenders.
Eighth Army had spent the previous week regrouping ready for the assault whilst the enemy was pounded almost continually by British and American air forces.
The 4th Indian Division had launched their attack but instead of attacking between Jebel Fatnassa, a steep 800-foot (240 m) hill and the flank of the 50th Division, Tuker the divisional commander had a change of mind. He persuaded Montgomery to attack Jebel Fatnassa using his mountain-wise infantry that included Gurkhas; Montgomery agreed and attack was launched; Jebel Fatnassa was defended by XXI Corps a mix of Italians from the La Spezia and Trieste Divisions as well as German 164th Light Division. Gurkhas, Rajputs, Sikhs, the Essex and Sussex regiments took all their objectives and held them.Lalbahadur Thapa won the Victoria Cross for taking many positions. The whole of the Fatanassa feature was taken and the 4/6th Rajputana advanced as far as the plain behind the hills nearly 5 miles (8.0 km) beyond. With this hole punched through, 2,000 prisoners were taken but Tucker was frustrated as X Corps failed to take advantage of the situation, as they were held up by successive German counter-attacks.
The 51st Highland Division launched their attack with the main barrage and took their objectives, the 152nd Brigade seized the top of Djebel Roumana a key strategic hill position following which made a vehicle gap through the minefield, the anti tank ditch on left boundary were cleared for tanks and towed anti tank guns. The 153rd and 154th brigades then punched a hole in the coastal defences and took 2,000 prisoners. One battalion from Trieste Division was eliminated and prisoners were taken from the 90th Light Division, one regiment of which counter-attacked at 9:00 a.m. and for a while held the Highlanders but was in turn driven back.
The 50th Division launched their attack in the centre and determined resistance was met, as the British troops came upon strong fortified positions. Italian marines, well dug in at Wadi Akarit and plentifully supplied with automatic weapons and grenades, also fought well but the British attackers pressed forward, although casualties among the 6th Green Howards had been severe; two senior officers, six senior NCO's and junior officers and one hundred and eighteen other ranks killed. The "Tobruk" Battalion of the Italian San Marco Marines were destroyed in turn when the Oidane-el-Hachana line was overrun, 1,000 prisoners being taken.
When we were about ten yards away we had reached the top of the slit trench and we killed any of the survivors.... It was no time for pussy footing, we were intoxicated with rage and had to kill them to pay for our fallen pal.
— Bill Cheall
Despite the resistance of the Italians, the Green Howards took the vital strong point known as Point 85 and held it against further attacks. 1/4 Essex of the 4th Indian Division soon established contact with the 50th Division on their right flank, helping them to cross an anti-tank ditch. A Victoria Cross was awarded to Private Eric Anderson, a stretcher-bearer who was killed in the battle. A company of the 5th East Yorkshire Battalion had to retreat under heavy fire and take cover behind the crest of a hill. Private Anderson went forward alone to rescue the wounded three times and was mortally wounded, while giving treatment.
The Axis commander Messe by mid-morning, could see the danger that the centre was the main target. As a counter move he ordered the 163rd Light Division to move from the position in the Western hills to the centre. In the afternoon Messe then committed 15th Panzer to join with the 90th Light Division held by the Trieste Division that had been penetrated and held by 51st Highland Division. The 15th Panzer Division arrived just before the attempted breakout and counter-attacked. The 10th and 21st Panzer divisions, which had been opposite the II US Corps during the Battle of El Guettar were also moved towards the British attack.
Three German counter-attacks were launched during the afternoon, mainly against the 51st Division, as it held on to the gains on Djebel Roumana. The 7th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders bore the brunt and halted the German counter-attacks.[c] As dusk settled, Montgomery's forces had formed enough bridgeheads to make the Axis position untenable; many Italian and German units were understrength having suffered many losses. Messe reported the dire situation to Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, Albert Kesselring and the Italian command in Rome, who urged the army group commander to continue resisting but Von Arnim ordered Messe to retreat to the Enfidaville position, some 150 miles (240 km) to the north.
At dawn on 7 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 little resistance until close to Enfidaville and about 6,000 prisoners were taken, sometimes surprised to see Allied troops beyond the supposed front line and large amounts of material (including captured US supplies) were captured. 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 the Greeks had nothing but small arms, it is assumed that spare petrol cans on the tank ignited.
At El Guettar, the II US Corps operation to assist in the cutting off of the Axis forces, in conjunction with the battle at Wadi Akarit had not gone well. The Americans had largely been repulsed by Italians on hills 772 and 369. Messe's retreat from Wadi Akarit forced the Italians to withdraw from the hills in front of the II US Corps and the offensive resumed but a patrol found them abandoned. On the morning of 7 April, Americans moved through the abandoned Axis positions and raced down the El Guettar–Gabès road, where it met the lead elements of the Eighth Army at 5:00 p.m.
Alexander decided to switch the II US Corps away to the north, which annoyed many Americans as it meant that they would not take Tunis but it was thought that after El Guettar, the Eighth Army was better prepared for the final offensive. In this way, some 140 miles (230 km) north of Wadi Akarit were covered and the towns of Sfax and Sousse were captured. The Axis troops fell back to easily defensible positions north and west of Enfidaville, 25 miles (40 km) south of Cape Bon where the mountains descend to the sea, leaving a narrow passage to Hammamet, which were not given up until the general surrender in north Africa. Eighth Army units were moved towards Medjez el Bab opposite Tunis, for the final operations of the Tunisian Campaign.
Order of battle
|Allied and Axis forces | Wadi Akarit, 6–7 April 1943|
(Allied units taken from Playfair et al. (1966) unless indicated)
- This estimate is of troops in the line at Wadi Akarit. The full strength of the 1st Army was 106,000.
- Eighth Army had 1,289 casualties in the attack and had lost 32 tanks.
- Lieutenant Colonel Lorne MacLaine Campbell earned a Victoria Cross for continuing to inspire and direct his unit despite being wounded in repelling the attack.
- The 1st 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, other units could be brought in.
- Stevens 1962, p. 254.
- Ford 2012, p. 91.
- Jaques 2007, p. 1,087.
- Lewin 2004, p. 192.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 357–362.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 363–364.
- Playfair et al. 2004, p. 362.
- Murphy 1966, pp. 490–492.
- Ford 2012, p. 90.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 364–366.
- Barnes 2007, p. 313.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 369–373.
- Jeffreys & Rose 2012, pp. 89–201.
- Delaforce 2006, pp. 88–94.
- Stevens 1962, pp. 262–265.
- Cheall 1994.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 364–367, 372–373.
- Barnes 2007, p. 244.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 370, 372.
- Barnes 2007, p. 310.
- Ford 2012, pp. 87–91.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 372.
- Barnes 2007, p. 311.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 373–374.
- Hunt 2014, p. 172.
- Loughnan 1963, p. 282.
- Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 357–358, 376.
- Strawson 2004, p. 209.
- Loughnan 1963, pp. 283–288.
- Lewin 2004, pp. 246–247.
- Playfair et al. 2004, p. 485.
- Murphy 1966, pp. 491–492.
- Loughnan 1963, pp. 278–285.
- Playfair et al. 2004, p. 363.
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- Jaques, Tony (2007). Dictionary of Battles and Sieges: A Guide to 8500 Battles from Antiquity Through the Twenty-first Century. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-31333-536-5.
- Jeffreys, Alan; Rose, Patrick (2012). The Indian Army, 1939–47: Experience and Development. Farnham: Ashgate. ISBN 978-1-40945-653-7.
- Lewin, Ronald (2004). Rommel as Military Commander. Barnsley: Pen & Sword. ISBN 1-84415-040-2.
- Loughnan, R. J. M. (1963). Divisional Cavalry. The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. OCLC 195420. Retrieved 10 March 2015.
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- Playfair, Major-General I. S. O.; and Molony, Brigadier C. J. C.; with Flynn R.N., Captain F. C. & Gleave, Group Captain T. P. (2004) . Butler, J. R. M., ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East: The Destruction of the Axis Forces in Africa. History of the Second World War United Kingdom Military Series IV (Naval & Military Press ed.). London: HMSO. ISBN 1-84574-068-8.
- Stevens, Major-General W. G. (1962). Bardia to Enfidaville. The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. Wellington: War History Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs. OCLC 4377202. Retrieved 10 March 2015.
- Strawson, Jon (2004). The Battle for North Africa. Barnsley: Pen and Sword. ISBN 978-1-47381-898-9. Retrieved 10 March 2015.
- Lewin, Ronald (1977). The Life and Death of the Afrika Korps (Corgi 1979 ed.). London: Batsford. ISBN 0-552-10921-5.
- Moreman, T. R. (2007). Desert Rats: British 8th Army in North Africa 1941–43. Battle Orders (28). Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-84603-144-1.
- Porch, Douglas (2004). Hitler's Mediterranean Gamble (Cassell Military Paperbacks 2005 ed.). London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. ISBN 0-304-36705-2.
- Neillands, Robin (1991). The Desert Rats: 7th Armoured Division 1940–45 (Aurum 2005 ed.). London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. ISBN 1-84513-115-0.
- Neillands, R. (2004). Eighth Army: From the Western Desert to the Alps. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5647-3.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Wadi Akarit.|
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