To his admirers, Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel had shown a flash of his old form in Tunisia. Recovering from a 1,500-mile retreat from El Alamein in November 1942, he unleashed his Afrika Korps on the newly arrived U.S. Army in mid-February 1943 and crashed through Kasserine Pass, administering a shocking defeat to the green American troops and their ineffectual commander, Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall.
The immediate situation so alarmed Allied commanders that they sent an urgent plea to Rommel’s nemesis at El Alamein, British Eighth Army General Bernard Law Montgomery, to relieve the Americans by stepping up pressure at the Mareth Line, French-built fortifications in southern Tunisia that faced east toward the former Italian territory of Tripolitania. Long-term prospects, however, were more critical for the Axis than the Allies. To begin with, Rommel had fallen out of favor with the Axis high command after El Alamein. The result was a divided leadership. Rommel commanded German and Italian forces in the south, curiously named the First Italian Army, while General Jürgen von Arnim led the Fifth Panzer Army in the north.
While the two armies fighting back to back in Tunisia would have profited from the unitary control of a single authority, the aristocratic General von Arnim and Rommel, a field marshal from bourgeois Swabian stock, despised each other. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring supervised matters from Comando Supremo in Italy, but that was a cumbersome arrangement. For example, von Arnim was pessimistic and skeptical about Rommel’s thrust through Kasserine Pass, and though Kesselring induced him to pass most of his tanks to Rommel, von Arnim held back his most powerful weapons, newly delivered Mark VI Tiger tanks.
Kesselring tried to resolve things by creating Army Group Africa, with Rommel in overall command. By then, however, the general feeling was that Rommel, overdue for sick leave in Germany, was only a figurehead.
As if to confirm that, von Arnim flew to Rome without Rommel’s knowledge and secured Kesselring’s permission to launch a new attack in the north on February 26. All that operation, aptly named Oschenkopf (“blockhead”), accomplished was to sacrifice 71 tanks—including 15 Tigers— against an Allied loss of only 16 and cause a serious delay in Rommel’s own plans to attack Montgomery. When told of it, Rommel expressed how dumbfounded he was at the “nincompoops” in Comando Supremo while nursing his forces at the Mareth Line.
At that time Montgomery was also in a precarious position, with most of his Eighth Army thinly strung out. The entire X Corps was 1,000 miles away in Benghazi. The nearest large formation that could be brought up to reinforce his lead units was the 2nd New Zealand Division in Tripoli. “Monty” had only two divisions facing the Mareth Line 25 miles to the south in a dusty, obscure village called Medenine. With usual British understatement, he later commented, “There is no doubt that between 28 February and 3 March I was definitely ‘unbalanced.’”
Had Rommel struck at that time, it could have been disastrous for the victor of El Alamein, but the German and Italian generals could not agree on what to do. On February 28, Rommel summoned his generals to a battle council. He proposed a pincer attack, sending the 10th and 21st Panzer divisions north along the coast and having the 15th Panzer and part of the 164th Light Division swing in from the hills to the south. He argued that an assault from the north would catch Montgomery by surprise.
The scheme touched off a furious debate. One German commander declared that the Axis had laid thousands of mines to the north. “We’ve booby-trapped them to prevent their removal,” he said. “If we blow them up, that will give the enemy advance warning that we’re coming.”
At that point General Giovanni Messe, now commander of the First Italian Army under Rommel, proposed crossing through mountain ridges in the south, claiming that aerial photographs showed the British had placed most of their guns between Medenine and the coast. The arguments raged for five hours, and Rommel uncharacteristically left it to Messe to draw up the plans for what was dubbed Operation Capri. Messe ordered the right-hook attack.
Rommel’s strangely passive behavior may have been largely tied to his health. After two years of almost unceasing battle in the North African desert, he suffered from fainting spells, low blood pressure, rheumatism and heart problems. His skin was yellowed by jaundice, and his face and neck were splotched with boils.
Meanwhile, Montgomery, forewarned by the British Ultra code-breakers and aerial reconnaissance, had been rushing reinforcements to the Medenine front for days. By March 4, he had four divisions in place and was prepared to cover either flank, with nearly 400 tanks, 350 field guns and some 470 antitank guns in place. The latter were mostly 57mm 6-pounders, but there were some 76mm 17-pounders and 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns. That formidable array awaited Rommel when he attacked on March 6, a week late, with the 10th, 15th and 21st Panzer divisions. By then, Monty’s troops had learned an important fact about antitank weapons. Instead of inserting them to protect infantry, they sited their 6- pounders forward, camouflaged and dug in, with the specific role of taking the enemy tanks in enfilade at close range. Behind them, the British infantry was concealed on reverse slopes, much as Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, had done to protect his troops from French artillery in Spain 130 years before. Backing up the 6-pounders were the low-mounted, hard-hitting 17-pounder guns. By Montgomery’s orders, his tanks were not committed but conserved for later operations, as they had been at Alam Halfa in September 1942.
At 6 A.M. Rommel’s tanks, shrouded in a thick mist from a rainy night, debouched from their wadis, preceded by a barrage of Nebelwerfer rockets and artillery shells. Their ineffectiveness suggested to the British that the Germans, having made the primary blunder of failing to conduct a prior reconnaissance, did not know exactly where the British were. Rommel viewed the assault from Hill 713, some 15 miles away, another sign of decline in the man who had always preached and practiced that a commander leads from the front.
Brigadier Howard K. Kippenberger, commanding the 5th Brigade, 2nd New Zealand Division, had gone forward with his Maori battalion and was treated to what he later called the sight of his life. Some 50 tanks of the 10th Panzer Division were rolling forward in companies, line abreast, with hundreds of trucks behind them, filled with Panzergrenadiers. Kippenberger was surprised how badly coordinated the advance was, for normally the enemy infantry should have been up close supporting the tanks against dug-in, prepared defenses. British artillery opened up on the infantry dismounting from the trucks, and antitank guns unleashed a fusillade at the armor’s flanks, breaking up the attack.
Elsewhere, the 21st Panzer Division blundered in front of a British ruse. Troops had laid out rows of bully beef tins to simulate mines five miles west of Medenine. The panzers swerved left to avoid them, only to expose their relatively thin side armor to hidden antitank guns, which left a dozen tanks in flames. Hermann Frömbigen of the 21st Panzer got within 1,000 meters of the low hills slightly northwest of Medenine when the tanks were smothered by heavy artillery fire from gun pits located 40 yards behind hastily abandoned dummies. At the same time, low-flying Royal Air Force fighters loosed rockets into the panzers and machine-gunned the infantry.
The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, well dug in, overlooked a killing ground. “They were a mixed bag of Germans in the khaki uniform of the Afrika Korps and Italians in their dark green tunics,” one Scot reported. “They advanced by section in close formation, and offered an admirable target. I took over a Bren gun myself, and, shouting to the others to hold their fire, waiting until they were within four hundred yards, then I gave the signal, and we let them have magazine after magazine….Then enemy sections stopped, wavered, broke into a double, and pushed on, stopped again, and finally dived for shelter among some scattered olive trees. They must have suffered terrible casualties.”
The antitank gunners also coolly held their fire until the German tanks were close. One team defended a critical hill called Tadjera Khir, which dominated the whole of the XXX Corps’ defenses. It knocked out one oncoming panzer, but a second tank landed a hit that wounded the gun layer in his right eye. Unperturbed, he simply continued aiming with his left eye and knocked out a third tank.
By 10 a.m. Rommel’s advance had stalled. “It was an absolute gift,” Montgomery wrote afterward, “the man must be mad.”
At noon General Hans Cramer, who had taken command of the Afrika Korps the day before, reported to Rommel that his tanks were at a standstill. Rommel suspected that Italian officers had betrayed the operation; he could not have realized that Monty had known about Operation Capri from Ultra code-breakers and his own intelligence.
The Axis force launched a second assault at 2:30 p.m. This time the infantry preceded the tanks, but an entire British corps unleashed an artillery barrage on them. Highlanders called it a “wonderful shoot,” with field-gray troops “dropping like ninepins.” Referring to Rommel, Montgomery remarked, “The Marshal has made a balls of it.”
At nightfall Rommel called off the attack, having lost 52 tanks—more than a third of his armor—and 635 men. Montgomery had taken 130 casualties but had not lost a single tank. Virtually all the destroyed German armor had fallen victim to antitank fire except for seven knocked out by a squad of Shermans, the only British tanks committed to the battle.
Major General Francis Wilfred de Guingand, Montgomery’s chief of staff, called the perfectly fought defensive Battle of Medenine “a little classic of its own.” Winston Churchill declared, “Nothing like this example of the power of massed antitank artillery had yet been seen against armour.”
For Rommel, Medenine was a catastrophe. “A great gloom settled over us all,” he later wrote. “For the Army Group to remain longer in Africa was now plain suicide.” Three days later, the Desert Fox handed over the reins to von Arnim and flew to Rome on sick leave, never to return to North Africa.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.