The Mareth Line was a system of fortifications built by the French between the towns of Medenine and Gabès in southern Tunisia, prior to World War II. It was designed to defend against attacks from the Italians in Libya, but following the Fall of France and Operation Torch it fell into Axis hands and was used by the Italians and Germans to defend against the British instead.
The geography of central Tunisia is dominated by the Atlas Mountains, while the northern and southern portions are largely flat. The primary feature in the south is the Matmâta hills, a range running north-south roughly parallel to the eastern coast on the Mediterranean Sea. West of the hills, the land is inhospitable desert, making the region between the hills and the coast the only easily navigable approach to the settled areas in the north. A smaller line of hills runs east-west along the northern edge of the Matmâta range, further complicating this approach. There is a small gap between the two ranges, the Tebaga Gap, at the extreme northern exit of the Matmâta hills.
The line broadly followed the Wadi Zigzaou for 35 km (22 mi) inland from the sea to the Matmâta hills, crossing the coastal road. The wadi provided a natural defence line, with steep banks some 70 feet (21 m) high in places. It was reputed to be the most difficult military defence line in North Africa. The French view was that the hills were sufficiently impassable to discount any attempt to outflank on the landward side, which, however, was subsequently disproved in Operation Supercharge II.
The line was loosely modelled after the Maginot Line and was often dubbed the ligne Maginot du désert - the desert Maginot Line. Constructed between 1936 and 1940, it included 45 kilometres of fixed defences. The backbone of the line was a network of 40 infantry bunkers (dubbed casemates in contemporary French), eight large artillery bunkers, 15 command posts and 28 support posts.
Although constructed to counter a possible Italian incursion into Tunisia, the Mareth Line did not take part in the eventual fights of the battle of France since the African theatre remained relatively peaceful. In the aftermath of the conflict the line was formally demilitarised by a joint Italo-German commission.
However, following the Axis defeat at El Alamein, in November of 1942 the Afrika Korps started to remilitarise and refurbish the line to use it against the Allied forces. Until March of 1943 more than 100 kilometres of barbed wire were laid, as well as 100,000 anti-tank mines and 70,000 anti-personnel mines. In addition, the bunkers were reinforced with additional concrete and rearmed with anti-tank and AA guns.
After the Allied success at El Alamein, the German and Italian forces had conducted a fighting retreat across northern Libya and into Tunisia. General Bernard Montgomery's British Eighth Army paused at Medenine to prepare for the difficult assault on the Mareth Line and the Italian First Army (comprising the remnants of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps and the Italian armies), now commanded by General Giovanni Messe, attempted a pre-emptive attack (Operation Capri). When this failed, the axis troops withdrew to the Mareth Line and awaited the British attack.
On 19 March 1943, the Eighth Army assaulted the line. The 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division of British XXX Corps successfully managed to penetrate the line near Zarat, but their pocket was destroyed by a counterattack from the 15th Panzer Division on 22 March.
Earlier reconnaissance by the Long Range Desert Group had confirmed that the Line could be outflanked. This would enable a force to enter the Tebaga Gap from its western end and reappear on the coastal plain behind the Mareth Line - the "left hook". Montgomery, therefore, sent Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg's reinforced New Zealand 2nd Division - now the New Zealand Corps - through the Matmâta hills. This attack was stalled by determined defence.
Although the attacks by XXX Corps and the New Zealand Corps had been repulsed, allied forces were redistributed with 1st Armoured Division of British X Corps sent to reinforce the Tebaga Gap. Brian Horrocks, commander of X Corps, was placed in charge of operations at the Tebaga Gap and renewed attacks began on 26 March. This "left hook" broke through the Tebaga Gap on 27 March and, combined with a fresh frontal assault, the Line was rendered untenable. However, Messe's forces were able to escape encirclement when the 1st Armoured Division was held up at El Hamma. The Axis forces retreated to a line at Akarit, 60 kilometres (37 mi) to the north.
- Dear, I.C.B. (editor) (2001). The Oxford Companion to World War II. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860446-7.
- Prior-Palmer, Brigadier G.E. (March 1946). A Short History of the 8th Armoured Brigade, Chapter II Medenine to Tunis. Hanover: H.Q. 8th Armoured Brigade.
- Stevens, Major-General W.G. (1962). Bardia to Enfidaville, Chapters 8 – 10. The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. Wellington, NZ: Historical Publications Branch.
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