The Mareth Line was a system of fortifications built by France in southern Tunisia, prior to World War II. It was to defend against Tunisia against attacks from Libya, then a colony of Fascist Italy. Tunisia was occupied by Axis forces after Operation Torch in 1942, and the Line was used by the Axis to defend against British forces which had occupied Libya.
Plan and construction
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French plans for defence of Tunisia assumed that Italy would launch an overwhelming assault that France could not easily oppose. Italy was expected to launch attacks on Egypt and Tunisia as soon as war was declared, with the Italian Navy securing supply and interdicting any substantial Anglo-French relief. With a limited force of 6–9 divisions to defend all of French North Africa, the French army settled on the idea of a ligne Maginot du désert (a "Maginot Line in the desert"). The border with Libya was indefensible for an inferior force, so the French considered two positions inside Tunisia.
The best prospect was the Wadi Akarit, which ran from the Chott El Fedjed, the eastern extension of the Chott el Djerid salt flats, to the Mediterranean Sea. The sea and the salt flats were impassable, so this position could not be flanked.
However, the Wadi Akarit position did not protect the important town and harbor of Gabès. The French colonial government opposed the surrender of so much of Tunisia.
The French therefore chose the next best prospect, along Wadi Zigzaou, between the Matmata Hills and the sea, 37 miles (60 km) south of Wadi Akarit. The banks of Wadi Zigzaou were up to 70 feet (21 m) high, and surveys of the Matmata hills indicated they were impassable, with the Western Desert seeming equally foreboding. This position secured Gabès as a supply base, but was easily outflanked to the west if a mobile force went around the Matmata Hills, and Wadi Zigzaou put the French in front of a bottleneck, vulnerable to air and artillery fire.
Construction began in 1936, with the Mareth line laid out in a similar manner to the Maginot line. The fortification stretched for 28 miles (45 km) of fixed defences, trenches and cleared firing blinds. Infantry were to be housed in trenches and forty concrete casements as well as 15 fortified command posts and 28 support posts. The ground did not suit underground artillery but eight large artillery positions were constructed, each capable of accommodating a battery. The French Staff expected an extreme manpower shortage in France so reinforcement for Tunisia were much of an afterthought; units in Tunisia were not expected to be reinforced. Once mobilised, the French army in Tunisia was expected to hold out for up to two years against a superior Italian army attacking from Libya. The Mareth Line incorporated French experience of trench warfare and infantry–artillery attacks. The Line would preserve French manpower and provide a force multiplier to offset numerical inferiority. As in France, the French were confident that fixed fortifications would be only harassed by tactical air power and immensely improved field artillery. Eventually, the position might be used as a staging base to push into Libya, but any such operation would occur far into a new war and only after a successful British invasion from Egypt.
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 Matmata 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 traversed approach to northern Tunisia. A smaller line of hills runs east-west along the northern edge of the Matmata range, further complicating this approach. There is a small gap between the two ranges, the Tebaga Gap, at the extreme northern end of the Matmata Hills.
The line broadly followed the Wadi Zigzaou for 22 miles (35 km) inland to the Matmata Hills, crossing the coastal road. The wadi provided a natural defence line with its steep, high banks. 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 block any outflanking move on the landward side. But this belief was subsequently disproved in Operation Supercharge II.
After the French surrender, the Line was formally demilitarised by an Italo-German commission.
In November 1942, Allied forces defeated the Panzer Armee Afrika (PAA) at El Alamein and landed in French North Africa. Axis forces then occupied Tunisia. From November 1942 to March 1943, PAA conduted a fighting retreat toward Tunisia, pursued by British Eighth Army. Meanwhile Axis engineers reactivated the Mareth Line for use by PAA. By March of 1943, they had laid more than 62 miles (100 km) of barbed wire, and placed 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.
In March 1943, Eighth Army reached the Libya-Tunisia border, and paused at Medenine to prepare to attack the Mareth Line. Axis forces (now organized as the Italian 1st Army under 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.
Battle of the Mareth Line
On 19 March 1943, Eighth Army frontally assaulted the Line in Operation Pugilist. The 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division penetrated the Line near Zarat, but was driven back by 15th Panzer Division on 22 March.
Earlier reconnaissance by the Long Range Desert Group had shown that the Line could be outflanked. A force could pass through the southern Matmata Hills, reach the Tebaga Gap from the west, and pass on to the coastal plain behind the Mareth Line - the "left hook". At the same time as Pugilist, Eighth Army commander Montgomery had sent the reinforced New Zealand 2nd Division - now the New Zealand Corps - around the Matmata Hills. This attack was stalled by determined defence at the Tebaga Gap on 21-24 March. Montgomery sent 1st Armoured Division of British X Corps to reinforce the Tebaga Gap attack, and put X Corps commander Brian Horrocks in charge. The British attacked again (Operation Supercharge II) on 26 March and broke through the Tebaga Gap on 27 March. This success, combined with a fresh frontal assault, made the Line 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 Wadi Akarit, 37 miles (60 km) to the north.
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