Eighth Army reaches the Mareth Line in Tunisia

A knocked-out German PzKpfw III tank, with the body of one of its crew lying on the hull, 24 February 1943.

A knocked-out German PzKpfw III tank, with the body of one of its crew lying on the hull, 24 February 1943.

A PIAT (Projectile Infantry Anti-Tank) in action at a firing range in Tunisia, 19 February 1943.

A PIAT (Projectile Infantry Anti-Tank) in action at a firing range in Tunisia, 19 February 1943.

A Scammell Pioneer recovery lorry tows a disabled Crusader tank into a REME workshop, 12 February 1943.

A Scammell Pioneer recovery lorry tows a disabled Crusader tank into a REME workshop, 12 February 1943.

In North Africa the Eighth Army was nearing the end of its long journey to the west from Egypt. After a pause to replenish and refit in Tripoli it finally came up against the Mareth line where the Germans chose to make a stand, after their long retreat.

The German forces in Tunisia had had success in their attacks on the raw American troops at Kasserine Pass and the British First Army who were enagaging them on their other front. If they could successfully hold off the Eighth Army they might have more success in breaking through the Allied lines further west. The Mareth Line was the defensive position where they intended to keep one front stable.

Neil Mccallum was a British officer with the Eighth Army:

It is common knowledge that the enemy intend to make a stand at Mareth. Montgomery, we hear, is pleased. Our attitude is of resignation. The easy chasing, mile after mile, could not last. The enemy’s other Tunisian campaign, against the First Army and the Americans, would be a travesty of all strategy unless a stand were made here.

The country towards Mareth is undulating. Sandy ridges and bush-covered wadis. Very green in places. The scrub is full of flowers, yellow and blue and white, exciting flowers of pure colour and in great numbers, far more splendid than the foretaste we had of them in western Libya and on the other side of Tripoli.

The air is suffused with spring. Birds are singing. Flies and ants and bees are busy. Part of the mystery of the country is the refreshing magic of spring, offered to us tantalisingly, underlining our status as soldiers and killers.

Far to the north and west are the hills where the ‘line’ is, after it leaves the littoral. Through glasses I have been watching one of the foothills where our heavies are bursting. The lack of response from the enemy continues. It is disturbing, neither defining nor denying his presence.

As usual the Jocks are perched on the sky-line, indifferent to observation. They sit in the sun stripped to the waist, shaving or cleaning their riiies. My sergeant insists that this has a demoralising effect on the enemy. He is a believer in the divisional Tradition.

It is as though the half-clad men were saying to the Germans, “Well, here we are. We’ve caught up with you. We know you’re there in those bloody hills and this is all we care.” It is magnificent folly. It will last till the shells come over.

Occasionally there is the distant burbling of a Spandau machine-gun, but we do not know if it is used by the enemy or is a captured weapon used by our own machine-gunners. Such things magnify the lack of news. Something is happening, but what is it; and where is it happening, and who is involved?

This vast countryside must be swarming with soldiers in different uniforms but we do not possess the picture of it. One feels neglected, almost insulted at not being allowed to share the secret.

And now to sleep in the afternoon in the warm sun. Tonight we shall probably move further on.

See Neil McCallum: Journey with a Pistol

An AEC Matador tows a 4.5-inch field gun across a wooden track built across soft ground on the border between Libya and Tunisia, 23 February 1943.

An AEC Matador tows a 4.5-inch field gun across a wooden track built across soft ground on the border between Libya and Tunisia, 23 February 1943.

A sapper of 8th Field Squadron Royal Engineers lifts a mine on the Thala-Kasserine road, 24 February 1943.

A sapper of 8th Field Squadron Royal Engineers lifts a mine on the Thala-Kasserine road, 24 February 1943.

A captured German SdKfz 7 artillery tractor in the Western desert, 22 February 1943.

A captured German SdKfz 7 artillery tractor in the Western desert, 22 February 1943.

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