The Mareth line

April 16, 2012 0 Comments

Remaining Bunkers in the Mareth Line

The Mareth line was built by the French between 1936 and 1940. It was aimed at protecting Tunisia (French protectorate) from a possible expressionist push of the Italians coming from Libya. It was 45 km long, between the sea and the small 700m height Dahar mountain.


It was composed by 8 artillery bunkers and 40 infantry bunkers.


In June 1940, an armistice is signed between France and Germany. France is considered as a non-fighting country, and thus, the Mareth line is demilitarized and disarmed.


On the 9th of November 1942, English-American troops invaded the French North Africa by surprise (operation Torch). The German-Italian troops reacted with the Tunisia invasion.


In November 1942, after his El Alamein defeat, Rommel retreated to Tunisia, 6000km away through the Libyan desert. He decided to rearm the Mareth line as a defence against the Allied prosecutors: German army posed 200 000 mines, barbed wires, built new anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery bunkers, and used the Zigzaou oued as a natural anti-tank ditch.


The battle of Mareth takes place from 16th till 28th of March 1943. During ten days, English troops attacked frontally with an enormous superiority (160 000 men for Allied against 76000 men for the Axis). They couldn’t pass, confirming the defensive efficiency of the line.


Operation Pugilist

On 19 March 1943, the Eighth Army assaulted the line. The British 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division of British XXX Corps successfully managed to penetrate the line near Zarat, but their pocket was destroyed by a counterattack from the 15th Panzer Division on 22 March.


Earlier reconnaissance by the Long Range Desert Group had confirmed that the Line could be outflanked. This would enable a force to enter the Tebaga Gap from its western end and reappear on the coastal plain behind the Mareth Line - the "left hook". Montgomery, therefore, sent Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg's reinforced New Zealand 2nd Division - now the New Zealand Corps - through the Matmâta hills. This attack was stalled by determined defence.


Operation Supercharge II

Although the attacks by XXX Corps and the New Zealand Corps had been repulsed, allied forces were redistributed with 1st Armoured Division of British X Corps sent to reinforce the Tebaga Gap. Brian Horrocks, commander of X Corps, was placed in charge of operations at the Tebaga Gap and renewed attacks began on 26 March. This "left hook" broke through the Tebaga Gap on 27 March and, combined with a fresh frontal assault, the Line was rendered untenable. However, Messe's forces were able to escape encirclement when the 1st Armoured Division was held up at El Hamma. The Axis forces retreated to a line at Akarit, 60 kilometres (37 mi) to the north.


Meanwhile, the general Leclerc’s French Free Forces (Forces Françaises Libres) and the 10th New Zealand troops made a big bypass operation on the West side of the line and attacked the German-Italian positions on their back. On March 26th, they arrived at El Hamma. Considering the threat of encirclement, Rommel decided to abandon the Mareth line and to withdraw northward.


The Ministry of National Defense has run a small museum since 1994 on the Mareth line, located adjacent to the riverbed of Wadi Zigzaou. The museum is comprised of five major halls as well as a video room that presents a timeline of major WWII events involving the Mareth Line. The presentation recalls the conflict’s protagonists and the military tactics employed during the skirmishes that occurred along this famous North African front.

Each of museum’s five halls has a particular focus: the military campaign in North Africa between November 1942 and February 1943, leaders of the Allied and Axis forces in Tunisia, a diagram of the Battle of Mareth, military operations in Tunisia from April 1942 to March 1943, and a display of WWII artillery. In the video room, guests are treated to a detailed short film on the battle of Mareth. Outside, visitors can still observe the defensive trenches, several bunkers, and some artillery posts.

According to a military guide at the Manouba Military museum, the number of visitors to the Mareth line museum reached 4,000 in 2011.

“Most of the tourists are coming from Germany,” he stated.

The museum is located only 30 km south from the city of Gabes along the Médenine-Gabès highway. From Djerba, a ferry can be taken from Ajim port to el-Jorf on the mainland; the museum is located only 10 km from the port by car.

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