Battle of Medenine, 6 March 1943

The battle of Medenine (6 March 1943) was Rommel's last offensive in Africa, and was an unsuccessful attempt to disrupt the Eighth Army's preparations for their upcoming attack on the Mareth Line, the main Axis defensive position in southern Tunisia. (North African Campaign)

In the aftermath of his defeat at the second battle of El Alamein Rommel had conducted a skilful but fairly rapid retreat out of Libya. He was aware that his shattered army couldn't stand up to any serious attack, and so refused to make a stand on any of the defensive lines inside Libya. He abandonded the El Agheila line in mid December, just as Montgomery began a carefully planned attack. He repeated this at Buerat in mid January, and on 23 January the Eighth Army finally occupied Tripoli, three months after the start of the battle of El Alamein. Rommel's destination was the Mareth Line, a series of pre-war French fortifications built to protect French Tunisia against an attack from Italian Libya.

Rommel was aware that Montgomery wouldn’t risk a quick attack on the Mareth Line, and suggested that the gap could be used to attack the American forces advancing into southern Tunisia from Algeria in the aftermath of Operation Torch. He won approval for this attack, which was carried out in conjunction with General von Arnim's 5th Panzer Army, building up in northern Tunisia. This attack, which began in mid February, led to the battle of the Kasserine Pass (19-22 February 1943), and saw the US 1st Armored Division suffer an embarrassing defeat, before the Axis attack ran out of steam just to the north of the pass.

Panzer III Ausf L or M, Tunisia
Panzer III Ausf L or M,
Tunisia

In the aftermath of this battle Rommel became the commander of a new Army Group Africa. His old Panzerarmy Africa became the Italian First Army, under General Giovanni Messe. Although Rommel officially had command over both Axis armies in North Africa, he had little say on von Arnim's activities in the north, and instead focused on the idea of launching a surprise attack on Montgomery's Eighth Army, in an attempt to disrupt its preparations for the attack on the Mareth Line. On 28 February Rommel held a command conference in which the idea was laid out. Rommel suggested a pincer attack, with two divisions attacking from the Matmata Hills (to the west of the British positions) and two divisions attacking along the coast, both heading for the town of Medenine, the main British base. Messe opposed the idea of the coastal attack, on the grounds that his troops would have to cross their own thick minefields and would be attacking straight towards the British artillery. After a long meeting Rommel gave in, and allowed Messe to plan the attack.

The British line ran from north to south, a few miles to the east of the Mareth Line. It was anchored on the coast on the right, but on the left it ran across the desert, at a short distance from the Matmata Hills, which formed the inland flank of the Mareth Line. Messe's plan was for a four pronged attack on Medenine. On the right 10 Panzer would attack from the west/ south-west, heading directly for Medenine. On their left 21 Panzer would attack east towards some hills just to the north  of Medenine. On their left 15 Panzer would attack along the main road from the inland end of Mareth Line towards Medenine. Finally on the Axis left the Italian La Speziadivision and part of the German 90th Light Division would attack along the road from Mareth itself to Medenine.

Messe's plan (Operation Capri) was a follorn hope at best. The three German armoured divisions only had 162 tanks between them. Although the British position wasn’t protected by wire or minefields (as Montgomery was expecting to go onto the offensive), they had 350 25-pounder and medium guns, 460 anti-tank guns and 300 tanks in the front line. The only chance of success was if the British could be caught by surprise, but Ultra intercepts had revealed the details of Messe's plans to Montgomery, who was able to take suitable precautions. Normally the front line would have been fairly lightly manned, as the rest of the army prepared for the upcoming attack, but Montgomery now moved full divisions into the line. The 51st Division was posted on the right, from the coast to the Mareth to Medenine road. 7th Armoured Division filled the area from the road to the Tadjera Hills. The 2nd New Zealand Division held the area in front of Medenine and the nearby village of Metameur (between Medenine and the Tadjera Hills). To make things worse for the Axis troops, Montgomery had positioned his artillery and anti-tank guns in positions that were designed to allow them to destroy enemy tanks, rather than to support the British armour. The British gunners also had a new fire plan - instead of beginning with long range harassing fire, they would wait for the German tanks to get close and then open fire with a massed barrage aimed at destroying as many German tanks as possible. The British tanks were to be kept out of the battle as far as possible, to save them for the attack on the Mareth Line.

The battle began at 0600 hours when 10 Panzer advanced from the hills towards Metameur (to the west/ north-west of Medenine). This attack was stopped by heavy anti-tank fire from the 2nd New Zealand Division outposts a few miles outside the village.

21 Panzer's attack towards the Tadjera Hills was stopped by artillery fire from the hills. 15 Panzer attacked from the Mareth Line defences but also made no progress.

The only progress came on the left, where the La Spezia division and the 90th Light managed to penetrate the 154th Brigade (51st Division) and 131st Brigade (7th Armoured Division) line and capture Zemlet el Lebene, an area of higher ground to the north-west of the Tadjera Hills.

Next came a combined assault by 15 Panzer and 21 Panzer, but this was repulsed by a combination of tanks from the 201st Guards Brigade and artillery fire from the Tadjera Hills.

A 131st Brigade counterattack recaptured Zemlet el Lebene, negating the only Axis success of the battle.

10 Panzer launched a second attack on Metameur, but once again this was repulsed by artillery fire. However a report falsely claimed that the village had fallen, and so Messe ordered 15 Panzer to move south to reinforce the success. When the truth was discovered the division retreated back into the hills.

Rommel had been watching the attack from the hills to the south of the main battlefield, and it quickly became clear that the British had expected the attack. He believed that there must have been a lapse in security on the Italian side, but didn’t suspect that the problem was with the German codes. Late in the afternoon Rommel decided that enough was enough, and ordered Messe to end the battle. 

The battle of Medenine had been a total disaster for the Axis powers. The Germans lost 52 tanks, almost all to anti-tank guns. Allied casualties were very low, and Montgomery described the battle as 'A model defensive engagement and a great triumph for the infantry and the anti-tank gun'l

This was Rommel's last attack in Africa. On 8 March he handed over command to von Arnim, and on the following day he flew out of Africa for the last time. Hitler refused to allow him to return, and insisted that he take sick leave. The Allies didn’t discover that Rommel had left Africa until the end of the Tunisian campaign, and as a result believed that his was their opponent during their attack on the Mareth Line.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 June 2017), Battle of Medenine, 6 March 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_medenine.html

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