Medenine – a desperate attempt to halt the Eighth Army

Gunners at a forward gun position rest against ammunition cases, March 1943

Gunners at a forward gun position rest against ammunition cases, March 1943

Bishop 25-pdr self-propelled gun, 6 March 1943.

Bishop 25-pdr self-propelled gun, 6 March 1943.

In Tunisia the ailing Rommel had once last throw of the dice in an attempt to break up the advance of the British 8th Army moving westwards to link up with the US forces and British 1st Army moving east. Rommel was no longer in sole command of the German forces and the attack was poorly prepared for, with limited reconnaissance. It was a fairly desperate measure in any event. Montgomery was to write on the 6th March:

He is trying to attack me in daylight with tanks, followed by lorried infantry… It is an absolute gift, and the man must be mad.

The 8th Army, including the New Zealand Division, had experience in dealing with such attacks and well developed tactics:

All doubts about the enemy’s intentions ceased at an early hour on 6 March, when fairly heavy shelling of all forward positions began at 6 a.m. Then for the next hour and a half tanks, guns, and transport debouched from the hills between Toujane and Kreddache, the approach having been concealed by fog in the early stages. The first tanks to be seen came down the Toujane–Medenine road and then swung north against 7 Armoured Division.

On the front of 2 NZ Division, contact with the enemy (from 164 Light Division) was first made by carriers from 21 Battalion, which engaged seven enemy vehicles carrying infantry and anti-tank guns. The carriers opened fire at close range in the fog and inflicted many casualties, but lost one carrier and had two casualties.

Small groups of infantry probed along the whole front, and farther back as the fog lifted, enemy guns could be seen taking up positions. For a long time our artillery was silent, obeying orders not to open fire prematurely, but to wait until targets came within the range of the maximum weight of guns. (This was the result of experience at Alamein.)

It was definite policy, moreover, for the anti-tank guns to open at short range, and not to dispel a tank attack by using medium or field artillery at long range. The 5th Field Regiment, for instance, withheld fire until enemy tanks had run up against the forward six-pounders, and then fired on the infantry and the soft-skinned vehicles following the tanks, with the result that the tanks were isolated and received no support from the ground troops.

About 8.30 a.m. tanks were reported from two directions advancing on Point 270 (Tadjera Kbir), which seemed to be the main objective. At this time also 28 Battalion reported that ten tanks and thirty trucks were moving up the wadi on its right front. The tanks reached the boundary of the dummy minefield, and then, as had been hoped, swung towards the rising ground.

Two six-pounders from 73 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, then opened fire and knocked out four Mark III Special tanks at 400 yards’ range, and mortars of 28 Battalion finished off a fifth. When the crews bailed out, the mortars and machine guns with the battalion had first-class targets and the artillery was quickly in action. The tanks were taken by surprise and lost cohesion; but then they located the anti-tank guns and opened fire on them.

Despite damage to one gun of 73 Regiment and the wounding of two of the crew, the gun kept firing; and when all the other weapons had opened fire, the remaining tanks disengaged and made off in confusion. Fifteen prisoners were taken, including the tank company commander, all from 10 Panzer Division.

A member of 27 (MG) Battalion who was on the spot has described the action as ‘a truly grand victory for the Tommy gunners, made still more remarkable considering that it was their very first action. The way in which they held their fire was an example to us all.’

See Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War.

It was Rommel’s last battle in North Africa, he would fly home on the 10th, never to return.

General Montgomery with Lt-Col A C Clive of the Grenadier Guards in a turretless Stuart command tank, 8 March 1943.

General Montgomery with Lt-Col A C Clive of the Grenadier Guards in a turretless Stuart command tank, 8 March 1943.

Guardsmen of the Scots Guards inspect a knocked-out German PzKpfw IV tank near Medenine, 12 March 1943.

Guardsmen of the Scots Guards inspect a knocked-out German PzKpfw IV tank near Medenine, 12 March 1943.

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