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.
Plan and construction
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Defences in Tunisia were predicated on the idea that Italy would launch an overwhelming assault that France could not readily relieve. As soon as war was declared Italy was expected to launch attacks on both Egypt and Tunisia 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, Paris settled on the idea of a ligne Maginot du désert or a “miniature” maginot line in the desert. The direct border with Libya was indefensible for an inferior force so the French had to retract their defensive line a hundred miles inland to the town of Gabes. The best surveyed was a defensive stretch behind Wadi Akarit and between the Schott El-Fedjed Salt Flats and the Mediterranean Sea. The superior position could not easily be flanked from the South and would have required a bloody assault to breach. However, the Akarit position surrendered the important town and harbor of Gabes. The French Colonial authority was already in arms over surrendering so much of Tunisia and French Officials in Gabes had substantial juice within French Politics. As a result the Mareth Line was constructed 37 miles South of Akarit between the Matmata Hills and the Sea. French engineers found an obvious defensive axis along Wadi Zigzaou where embankments stacked as high as 70 feet. Forays into the Matamata hills indicated they were impassable with the Western Desert seeming equally forboding. This position secured Gabes as a supply base but was easily outflanked to the West if a mobile force went around the Matamata Hills. Moreover, Wadi Zigzaou put the French in front of a geographic chokepoint incredibly vulnerable to air and artillery fire.
Construction began in 1936 with the Mareth Line laid out in a similar manner to the Maginot Line and heavy expectations set on the “mini” line. The length of the fortification stretched for 45 km of fixed defences, trenches and cleared firing blinds. Infantry were to be housed in trenches and 40 concrete casements as well as 15 fortified command posts and 28 support posts. The ground did not suit underground artillery but 8 large artillery bunkers were constructed with 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 and units in Tunisia were not expected to be actively reinforced. Once nested a French Army was expected to hold out for up to 2 years against a superior Italian Army attacking from Libya. As with the Maginot Line, the Mareth Line incorporated everything that the French had learned about trench warfare and infantry/artillery attacks. Mareth would preserve French manpower while simultaneously providing a force multiplier to equalizer a disadvantageous force pool. 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 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.
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.
Battle of the Mareth Line
On 19 March 1943, Eighth Army launched its assault on the line, Operation Pugilist. 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 a renewed attack, Operation Supercharge II, 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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