The 8th Army's pursuit of the Axis forces into southern Tunisia had been brought up short by the stiff defences of the Mareth Line. Built by the French before the war the line was a heavily fortified position running from the sea inland to Tujane in the Matmata Hills.
Beyond the hills lay the Dahar, desert country considered impassable by the French at the time of the Mareth Line construction. But the advent of four wheel drive and tracked vehicles had put this surmise into question and both sides were well aware of the possibilities afforded by a flanking attack. To this end Montgomery developed Operation Pugilist, a two-pronged attack that would simultaneously renew the assault on the line while sending the newly formed New Zealand Corps in a left hook through the desert to attack to the north at Tebaga Gap.
Three and a half miles miles wide at its narrowest and anchored between Djebel Tebaga on the south and Djebal Maleb to the north, Tebaga Gap lies just southwest of Gabes. Originally held by the Saharan Group, a disparate group of Italians commanded by General Mannerini, the launch of Operation Pugilist on March 20 initiated a slow and incremental battering that reduced the force to mere remnants. But as the New Zealand Corps consolidated its positions in and around the gap, the remnants of that force were "reinforced" by the 21st Panzer and 164 Light Divisions, taking over the defensive line bridging the gap. On March 23 command for this sector passed over to Major-General von Liebenstein of 164 Light Division.
By March 24, Operation Pugilist had pretty well run its course, with XXX Corps failing to achieve a breakthrough to the south. Montgomery now switched the main offensive to the north, sending his reserve X Corps through the desert to join up with and absorb NZ Corps and support its attack.
By March 26 plans were in place for a Blitzkrieg-like operation, now dubbed Operation Supercharge II. With close cooperation between the Western Desert Air Force, artillery and ground forces the intention was to force a breakthrough at Tebaga Gap and allow 1st Armoured Division to exploit beyond towards El Hamma. This would be the first occasion in the war that Allied air support worked in such direct support and close cooperation with ground forces in a combined attack.
This scenario covers the attack of 24 Battalion and 3RTR on the afternoon of March 26, 1943 west of the El Hamma road.
1. The attack goes in.
After a steady pounding of the Axis defences in the gap by Kittyhawk squadrons of the Western Desert Air Force, the 3 Royal Tank Regiment presses up against a quick-moving rolling barrage that spans the battlefield. Meanwhile 2 Field Regiment and 69 Medium Field Artillery work over a pre-arranged fire plan, targeting suspected enemy positions. With B and C Squadrons' Shermans and Grants advancing on the left and A Squadron's Crusaders on the right, their pace quickly leaves the following infantry behind in copious amounts of dust.
2. 24 Battalion advances.
Masked by the dust raised by the barrage and advancing tanks, 24 Battalion advances undetected.
3. A Squadron 3 RTR and carriers advance.
A Squadron is overtaken by 24 Battalion's carriers who forge ahead to scout out the enemy's defences.
4. Kittyhawks pound defences.
Meanwhile, using the rolling barrage as their bombline the Kittyhawks continue to attack the Axis positions, focussing their attacks on suspected positions along the ridge that dominates the west flank as well as the high ground and wadis running at right angles to the El Hamma road to the east.
5. Elements of Panzer regiment 5, 21 Pz. Div. advance.
Panzer III's and IV's that managed to evade the relentless Hurricane attacks to the rear begin to arrive piecemeal on the battlefield and move forward to take up defensive positions.
6. Kittyhawks return to base.
With the barrage moving through the Axis positions, the Kittyhawks drop their last bombs and return to base. Between the targeted concentrations and the 10 rounds or more of relentless bombing, the Axis lines are left battered and depleted.
7. C Squadron runs into minefield before ridge.
With the intention of brassing up the ridge positions in preparation of 24 Battalion's assault, three C Squadron Shermans are knocked out on an undetected mine belt. The remaining tanks of B and C Squadrons abandon this avenue of attack and bunch up as they circumnavigate the ridge to the east.
8. B Squadron circles around east end of ridge.
With the arrival of enemy tanks in the center, Axis troops manning forward positions, including a strongpoint at the eastern end of the ridge abandon their positions and fall back. Pak 40's and German armour engage the 3 RTR's as they move into the kill zone, knocking out one of the Shermans.
9. Carriers and Crusaders attack east flank.
With the infantry companies still lagging behind the battalions' carrier platoon supported by A Squadron moves in and engages the enemy dug in along a wadi next to the El Hamma road. But the numbers aren't sufficient and their first attempts are driven off.
10. 24 Battalion follows up.
C and D Cos. begin to arrive at the foot of the ridge, only to find three of C Squadrons tanks knocked out on the minefield. A and D Cos. move to outflank the ridge while C and D Cos. prepare for a direct assault.
11. C and D Cos. approach ridge.
12. Italians hold tight.Despite heavy losses from the bombardment, the remnants of the Saharian Group manning positions on the ridge put up a stiff resistance, keeping the attacking Kiwis at bay.
13. 3 Kp. reinforces.Elements of the German's 3 Kp., in reserve positions, move forward to reinforce the battered 2 Kp. occupying the wadi adjacent to the El Hamma road.
14. NZ mortars in action.With the barrage concluded the only indirect fire support now available to the New Zealanders is their 80mm mortar platoon.
15. OverviewViewed with the El Hamma road (east) at bottom and the ridge (west) at the top. The NZ infantry has only just reached the minefield guarding the ridge. B and C Squadrons, 3 RTR, crowd around the east end of the ridge and are brought up short by tank and antitank fire in the center while the opposing troops abandon their positions and flee. Meanwhile the Crusaders of A Squadron move up adjacent to the road. The carrier platoon's early assault on the wadi just west of the road has been repulsed while elements of the German's 3 Kp. move forward to reinforce the German left flank. Fortunately for A Squadron, two of the three Pak 40's positioned here were knocked out in air and artillery attacks, but the arrival of German armour has helped stiffen the line.
16. A deadly ridge.With most of 24 Battalion's C Company knocked out, D Company takes over the assault on the ridge. But deadly fire from heavy machinegun and infantry positions on the rear side of the ridge make it difficult to take and hold the position.
17. Breakthrough along the El Hamma road.
Under cover of smoke, A Squadron sprints past the German defences while the carrier platoon, moves back in to assault the wadi positions as well as those to the rear.
18. German 150mm infantry gun goes into action.North of the ridge and flanked by defending HMG's a German 150mm infantry gun opens up, adding its considerable weight to the Axis defence.
19. OverviewAt the bottom Italian units still stubbornly hold their positions along the ridge. More tanks of 3 RTR are brewed up in the center as A Squadron breaks through at top along the road.
Elements of A and B Company are finally approaching the battle on the New Zealand right flank (top), giving sorely needed infantry support to the embattled British armour.
20. Bayonet charge on ridgeUnder cover of smoke D Company finally charges over the top and gains a foothold in the enemy positions along the ridge. In the foreground an Italian 47mm antitank gun opens up at close range, but to no avail.
21. D Company infiltrates minefield.
Meanwhile other elements of D Company infiltrate the minefield, which now has a safe path cleared by NZ engineers. 24 Battalion's commander rolls up in his carrier for a closer look at how the battle progresses.
22. C Squadron races to the rear.
While most of C Squadron races to the rear and towards its objective (to exit at least 50% of 3 RTR's tanks off the north end of the board) the German Panzer III's pull back behind the high ground to meet the threatened enfilade. The Pz. IV and a third Pz. III remain to engage the few enemy tanks still operating in the center.
23. Carrier platoon rallies on east flank.
Dismounted elements of the carrier platoon join A and B Companies in their attempt to roll up the east flank of the Axis defences.
24. Clearing the ridge.
The last enemy units are cleared from their positions along the ridge, and D Company hunkers down in face of withering HMG and 150mm artillery fire, realizing it would be suicide to press on before the right flank has been rolled up.
25. Attacking the centerUnder cover of smoke A and B Companies move in to oust the defenders from positions that have ben reoccupied in the center.
26. First Panzer down.One of the German Panzer III's overruns the NZ Vickers platoon that has been threatening the German commanding officer and FOO dug in on the high ground behind the wadi. But a lone Sherman, following up the Crusaders' breakthrough, dispatches the enemy tank at close range.
27. Moving to enfilade.
The British tank commander, realizing that German armour still threatens the 24 Battalion attack and with only a single Sherman still operating in support of the troops, halts his advance of the Crusaders and swings them into enfilade positions against the German tanks. At this point the Allies can only hope to salvage a draw from the battle, as they have lost over 50% of their initial tanks and regardless, can not exit until the German armour has been completely knocked out.
28. Two more Panzers down.
The move to enfilade has devastating consequences for the defenders as two more of their tanks are quickly brewed up, leaving only one on the field. The last Sherman still operating in the center advances to close with the enemy but is disordered by defensive fire and knocked out through close assault.
29. Rolling up the east flank
With no armour or antitank guns left, the Germans are helpless to stop the carrier platoon from rolling up the east flank, squeezing the Axis defenders into a shrinking perimeter attacked on three sides.
30. RTR withdraws to take objective.
With the situation seemingly in hand the remaining tanks of 3 RTR withdraw from the field to take their objective (opening up the corridor for the 1st Armoured Division's attack).
31. Kiwi mortars relocate.
With the end game in sight, the 24 Battalion slows down its assault, waiting for their mortars to relocate into positions where they can bring down self-directed fire on the enemy. A couple of rounds of fire soften up the German strongpoint north of the ridge and cause the crew of the 150mm infantry gun to abandon it and flee to the rear.
32. Clearing out the last of the defenders.With the 150mm gun neutralized and its supporting HMG's disordered, D Company exits their positions on the ridge to sweep down and clear the enemy's strongpoint.
33. 125 Panzer Grenadiers retreat.With the back of the Axis defence broken, the remaining German troops morale fails and they exit the battlefield, leaving a badly battered 24 Battalion in control. Because the Kiwis managed to drive the defenders from their positions, the Allies play the game to a draw. With the tanks exiting with slightly more than 50% casualties (8 of 18 tanks exit) , the Allies were unable to claim a minor victory.