History of the Second World War, Volume 3

stop defences at El Hamma. Thus although the threatened cut-off led the enemy to abandon the Mareth Line he was able to hold the gate open and draw off his forces without much loss. He stopped again barely 10 miles behind El Hamma along the Wadi Akarit which spanned the Gabes Gap— avery narrow-fronted position between the sea and the hills. The Americans had already tried to forestall the enemy on this position and to pounce on his back while he was gripped by the 8th Army but they had again been checked before they could debouch from the hills. Then in the early hours of April 6 the 8th Army attacked the Wadi Akarit undercover of pitch darkness. That tactical innovation resulted in a pene­tration though the exploitation was checked by the Germans when daylight came.O then next night they broke away and retired rapidly up the coast towards Tunis. Within a few days the enemy twos armies had joined hands to offer a united defence along the mountain arc covering Tunis and it looked as though they might there maintain a prolonged re­sistance. Alternatively they might utilise the breathing space gained by the swift withdrawal to evacuate their forces to Sicily. The German Supreme Command however was led to attempt a prolongation of the campaign in Africa rather than draw in its horns and base its defence of Europe upon the southern shores of Europe. Even in Tunisia it tried to hold too extensive a front for its resources— a 100-mile perimeter —in the endeavour to preserve both Tunis and Bizerta. O n April 20 the offensive was opened by the 8th Army with an attack on the enemy lefts flank. But the coastal corridor became very narrow beyond Enfidaville and the advance soon slowed down, coming to a halt on the 23rd. O n April 21 the 5th Corps attacked from the left centre through the hills leading to Tunis. Next day the 9th Corps struck from the right centre near Goubellat with the aim of achieving an armoured break-through. But the effort failed to pierce the enemy s defences though it strained them severely and further weakened the enemy s remaining tank strength. A pause of nearly a fortnight followed on most of the front but in the north the Americans brought up from the south and a corps of French African troops continued to make a gradual penetration, which brought them within 20 miles of Bizerta. Meantime Alexander again reshuffled his hand. Leaving only a screening force in the right centre near Goubellat he moved the bulk of the 9th Corps over to the left centre concentrated it behind the 5th Corps and reinforced it with two picked divisions from the 8th Army —the 7th Armoured and 4th Indian. The effect of the deception-plan was reinforced by the reputation of the 8th Army, and of Montgomery so that General von Arnim kept a dispropor­tionate part of his strength in the south. But Arnim had little chance of perceiving the deception or of re-adjusting his dispositions after the blow fell because of the Allies command of the air. The assault of the 9th Corps now under General H orrocks was launched in the starlit but moonless early hours of May 6. It was preceded and covered by an intensive artillery bombardment from over 600 guns upon a sector less than 2 miles wide in theM edjerda valley leading to Tunis. After daylight the air force extended the blast with a terrific storm of bombs. The stunned defenders of the gateway were soon overrun by the infantry of the 4th Indian and 4th British Divisions. Then the concentrated tanks of the 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions drove through the breach. But they lost time in dealing with various small pockets of German resistance. By nightfall they were still some 15 miles from Tunis. In the morning however it became clear that the opposing army as a whole was still paralysed by the combined air shock and strate­gic shock to such an extent that it could not develop any tactical countermeasures. By the afternoon the leading troops of the British armoured divisions had swept into Tunis. Almost simultaneously, the Americans and French poured into Bizerta. The enemy command had been caught off its balance and then its machine was thrown out of gear by the combination of air pressure overhead and tank impact on its back. Dislocation of control was the primary cause of collapse while the breakdown of communications accentuated the demoralising effect of lack of reserves and disrup­tion of supplies. Another factor was the closeness of the enemy’s bases to the broken front. The rapid penetration into the bases was as dislocating to morale as it was to the administrative system. The loss of their bases deepened the depressing sensation of fighting with their backs to the sea— a sea now dominated by the Allies’ sea power and air power. For Sir Basil Liddell Harts biography see Issue 1 Insert p. xiv. \May 1943: final Axis collapse in the Tunisian bridgehead. An entire German army group-superbly equipped-is eliminated from the fighting strength of the Wehrmacht in Germanys next great military disaster after Stalingrad 1344
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