THE soft whir of a film projector silenced the British officers in Montgomery’s mess. Setting down their tea mugs, the men pivoted their canvas chairs toward an army blanket hung as a makeshift screen. The familiar supper smell of bully beef and biscuits was overpowered by the stink of sweat-stained khaki and ripe cardigans. Brilliant white flashes limned the jagged rim of the wadi sheltering the command post, and the grumble of artillery carried on the evening airs beneath a waxing moon.
Then the movie began. Artillery booms and flashes on the screen mingled with the real thing until they were almost indistinguishable: a celluloid depiction of the battle of El Alamein five months earlier was superimposed on tonight’s opening barrage of Eighth Army’s assault against the Mareth Line. But it was the film that held the men rapt. Churchill himself had sent this print of Desert Victory, a sixty-five-minute documentary that had become a worldwide propaganda sensation in the two weeks since its London premiere. Montgomery had seen the movie already, on March 16, but now, four nights later, he seemed no less entranced as he watched again, “a wee bugger in a black beret”—as a Scottish soldier described him—reliving the greatest triumph of British arms since Waterloo. His vulpine face, whitened with reflected images from the screen, hardly moved except for faint twitches of his thin black mustache.
There was Rommel, seen in captured German footage, sporting his leather duster and goggles. Then Monty himself, that “intensely compacted hank of steel wire,” in George Bernard Shaw’s arch phrase. Tankers stacked their shells, medics unfolded their stretchers. Then: sappers wriggle forward to snip the wire, and gun chiefs squint at their watches before shouting the command: Fire! The terrible cannonade turns night to noon. Infantrymen in baggy shorts surge forward, their rifles held at port arms. Bayonets thrust. Pipes keen. Then it’s over, except for the final flickering frames of dead Germans blackening in the sun and POWs scuffing toward their cages as Eighth Army pushes west. The Union Jack flaps over Tobruk on November 13, then Benghazi a week later, then Tripoli on January 23—way stations to Médenine and the current line at Mareth. “Pursuit,” the narrator asserts, “was relentless.”
The leader slapped round and round on the spinning reel as the officers shambled back to their bivouacs. They had a battle to fight, not just one to relive, and so far it was not going especially well. Montgomery stood and stretched to his full five foot seven—perhaps a bit taller in chukka boots—before returning to his caravan. He loved the film. “It is first class,” he wrote Alexander. As one reporter noted, “He was thoroughly enjoying this conqueror business.”
Bernard Law Montgomery was a bishop’s son who had passed a “lonely and loveless” childhood in remote Tasmania, dreaming of greatness and believing himself born to conquer. Near the photo of Rommel above his desk was a copy of Drake’s prayer before the attack on Cádiz in 1587, entreating God for “the true glory.” There lay Montgomery’s quest: the true glory. He was ascetic and fussy, a teetotaling, Bible-reading maverick who cited Cromwell and Moses among his favorite great captains and who had opened a commanders’ seminar on El Alamein a few weeks earlier by forbidding not only smoking but coughing. (Churchill, upon hearing Montgomery boast that abstinence made him “100 percent fit,” replied that he both drank and smoked and was “200percent fit.”) Hardened in the trenches—he had been badly wounded at Ypres—he was hardened more by the early death of a wife he adored. “One only loves once,” he told Alexander, “and now it is finished.”
A line from the Book of Job was among his favorites: “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” He was a master of organization and training, of the set battle, of the theatrics of command. “Kill Germans, even padres—one per week and two on Sundays,” he told his soldiers. Not a man among the 200,000 in Eighth Army doubted that he was their leader, or that he would be stingy in spending their lives. That was something. A majority of his forty-three infantry battalions came from Commonwealth or allied armies, and he had enough political moxie to avoid prodigality with other nations’ troops. After taking command in Egypt in mid-August 1942 under Alexander’s indulgent supervision, Montgomery had whipped Rommel first at Alam Halfa, then a second, decisive time at El Alamein. That British attack on October 23, with more than a thousand tanks, cracked the much weaker Axis defenders across a forty-mile front. “The sheer weight of British resources made up for all blunders,” one account noted. Twelve days later, Rommel was in the full retreat that had led to southern Tunisia. Until Alamein, the British Army had been mostly winless; his victory in Egypt gave new life to Churchill’s government and to empire, at a cost of 13,560 British casualties but with more than twice as many exacted from his enemies. Church bells had pealed in Britain for the first time in three years. Fan letters arrived at Montgomery’s bivouac by the thousands, including some marriage proposals, and soldiers rushed to glimpse his passing car as if he were a film star, which now he was. “We all trust him to win,” one brigadier said. As a redeeming virtue, that too was something.
And yet. Sparks flew up around Montgomery. He was puerile, petty, and egocentric, bereft of irony, humility, and a sense of proportion. It would not suffice for him to succeed; others must fail. “If he admitted to an error, it was always minor, and served, like a touch of black in a color scheme, to throw up his general infallibility,” the historian Correlli Barnett would write after the war. Acknowledging the “chaos of his temperament,” his biographer Ronald Lewin described
a kindliness and intermittent humanity marred by ruthlessness, intolerance, and sheer lack of empathy; a marvelous capacity for ignoring the inessential, combined with a purblind insensitivity about the obvious; a deep but unsophisticated Christianity; a panache, a burning ambition, above all an individuality—such were the gifts which both good and bad fairies brought to Montgomery’s cradle.
He disdained the French—“quite useless except to guard aerodromes”—and especially the Americans, to whom he would be miserably yoked for the duration of the war. Montgomery dismissed Eisenhower, whom he had met in Britain just long enough to rebuke for lighting a cigarette, in four words: “Good chap, no soldier!” After their second meeting, soon to occur near Mareth, he would embroider his assessment of the commander-in-chief in a letter to Brooke: “He knows nothing whatever about how to make war or to fight battles; he should be kept right away from all that business if we want to win this war.” Before ever seeing the U.S. Army, he proclaimed that “the real trouble with the Americans is that the soldiers won’t fight. They haven’t got the light of battle in their eyes.”
Montgomery was perhaps most controversial among his own countrymen. He deemed Anderson “quite unfit to command an army.” First Army as a whole was worthless. “The party in Tunisia is a complete dog’s-breakfast,” he declared, “and there is an absence of good chaps over there.” He quipped that he intended to “drive the Germans and the First Army back into the sea.” A senior British general considered him “a thoroughly disloyal subordinate.”
Swaggering into Tunisia, Montgomery and his army were also thoroughly overconfident. He envisioned a grand sweep to Tunis, with more laurels and church bells awaiting him. “We will roll up the whole show from the south,” he told Alexander. Churchill tartly noted: “Indomitable in retreat, invincible in advance, insufferable in victory.” Yet the army lumbered like “a dray horse on a polo field,” in Correlli Barnett’s phrase, despite an enthusiasm for the amphetamine benzedrine, which was issued in tens of thousands of tablets “to all Eighth Army personnel” on Montgomery’s order.
Contrary to the Desert Victory mythology, pursuit after Alamein was hardly “relentless.” Rommel had escaped with the core of his army despite a fifteenfold British advantage in tanks, an artillery superiority of twelve to one, and an intimate knowledge of Axis weakness thanks to Ultra and other intelligence. Eighth Army had hugged the ancient Pirate Coast across Libya much closer than it hugged the retreating Axis. That lollygagging had allowed Rommel time to drub the Americans at Kasserine, return to Médenine for a drubbing of his own, then slip away again. “Once Monty had his reputation,” charged the British air marshal Arthur Coningham, “he would never risk it again.”
Now another chance to bag the enemy army obtained, thanks to a stand-or-die order from the Axis high command.
This time the last ditch was to be dug at Mareth, a line of fortifications stretching twenty-two miles between the Mediterranean and the rugged Matmata Hills in the south. For centuries, the narrow coastal gap had been the main portal into southern Tunisia for trans-Saharan caravans carrying slaves and ivory. It was said that traveling merchants seized by Berber highwaymen were forced to drink vats of hot water to flush out any gold they had swallowed.
Although Hitler had vacillated before ordering Mareth held, Kesselring—ignoring Rommel’s skepticism—considered the position a suitable place to begin converting Tunisia into “one vast fortress.” A retreat farther up the Tunisian coast, toward Gabès or Sfax, might allow the merger of Alexander’s two armies; it would also shorten Allied bombing runs to Tunis and Bizerte. Under orders issued by Comando Supremo on March 17, Mareth was “to be defended to the last.” With Rommel gone to Europe, Arnim would command the Axis army group that comprised his own Fifth Panzer Army in the north and Panzer Army Africa, renamed First Italian Army, in the south. The latter included remnants of the Afrika Korps among its 50,000 Germans and 35,000 Italians, and was commanded by General Giovanni Messe, who for the past two years had led the Italian expeditionary corps in Russia.
Built by the French in the 1930s to thwart Italian aggression from the east, the Mareth Line by an odd turn was now garrisoned by twenty-two Italian battalions backed and flanked—“corseted”—by ten German infantry battalions and the 15th Panzer Division with thirty-two functioning tanks. Wadis were scarped into antitank ditches—more than a hundred feet wide and twenty feet deep in places. Thick plaits of barbed wire screened the front, which was four miles deep and seeded with 170,000 mines. Twenty-five decrepit French blockhouses marked the line, some with concrete walls ten feet thick. The Axis flank to the west beyond the hills was protected by chotts—desert salt lakes—and was marked on French maps as terrain chaotique.
These engineering nuances were known to the Allies, of course. Anglo-American intelligence possessed not only the Mareth blueprints but also the former French commander, who, Beetle Smith reported, was indulged in Algiers with six aides—“one for himself and five for his wife. The five were always borrowing ham and bacon and sugar for Madame.” On March 12, Alexander offered his assessment of enemy intentions at Mareth in a lilting if ambiguous message drawn from the twelfth chapter of Revelation: “The devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.”
Montgomery knew his Bible and he believed he also knew his enemy. Eighth Army outnumbered the 85,000-man First Italian Army by more than two to one. The disparity in heavy weapons was even more lopsided, including a five-to-one tank advantage, 743 to 142. With a sense of infallibility stoked by the rout at Médenine, Montgomery considered the Italians simply too weak to withstand his horde, corseting be damned. He dispatched his New Zealand Corps, with roughly one-quarter of his combat force, on a looping expedition to the west, where by a series of secret night marches they were to negotiate the terrain chaotique before falling on the enemy’s rear with 26,000 men and 150 tanks, wreaking havoc and despair. But the main blow, code-named PUGILIST GALLOP, would be a frontal attack by his XXX Corps just a few miles from the coast on a pinched front of 1,200 yards; once a hole was torn in the enemy line, the X Corps would plunge through in an ecstasy of exploitation. “When I give a party, it is a good party,” Montgomery assured his men on attack eve. “And this is going to be a good party.”
The party had begun badly. In preliminary jostling intended to improve British positions four nights before the main attack, two Guards battalions on the night of March 16 struck an enemy salient ten miles from the coast, on the road from Médenine to Mareth. The attackers included the 6th Grenadier Guards and the 3rd Coldstreams, newly arrived from Syria with heavy Hebron coats and tasseled fly switches. Their objective, a curvy cluster of hills rising 600 feet above the plain and known as the Horseshoe, was said to be “lightly held” by “one or two isolated machine gun posts.”
In fact, it was defended by 6,500 stone-cold killers from the German 90th Light Division and was part of a four-mile front bristling with more than fifty guns. Two grenadier battalions infested the Horseshoe proper, and Axis engineers had made good use of the three months allowed them to improve the Mareth defenses. After a British artillery barrage of 24,000 shells that did little but irk the defenders, the moonlit Guardsmen surged forward with much hoarse whispering and nervous nibbling of cookies stuffed in their pockets. Within minutes they were mired in unsuspected minefields of unprecedented density. German parachute flares floated over the line like tiny suns, exposing the men to a hellish crossfire. After some nasty bayonet work in the bottom of a wadi, the Guardsmen fell back, leaving the Horseshoe littered with bloody Hebron coats and fly switches that would switch no more. “It was my first contact with sudden death, and I couldn’t credit my senses,” one survivor reported. A German officer cadged cigarettes from British prisoners in exchange for cold coffee and black bread. “For you the war is over,” he told them, “but I must go on.”
The Coldstreams suffered 159 casualties, the Grenadiers 363, including twenty-seven of thirty-four officers. “Well I am still alive and that is more than I dared hope twelve hours ago,” the Coldstream padre wrote. “Our attack was a complete failure.” It was, one of Montgomery’s lieutenants admitted, “the most damnable thing.” Enemy casualties were fewer than 200. Burial squads trying to retrieve sixty-nine British bodies from one especially morbid acre found that they first had to remove more than 700 mines.
A lesser man might have reconsidered his scheme for a frontal attack against such formidable defenses. Not Montgomery. Unfazed, he proclaimed that these preliminary operations “as a whole were a great success.” Distracted with planning for Sicily, he seemed so disengaged from PUGILIST GALLOP that Major General J. S. “Crasher” Nichols, commander of the division ordered to spearhead the attack, was “left largely to his own devices,” according to an official British account of the battle. The result was a valorous attack of regrettable ineptitude using a solitary infantry brigade reinforced by a solitary regiment of Valentine tanks, most armed with the impotent 2-pounder popgun.
Of such battles are myths made and empires lost. As Montgomery and his officers watched their movie on March 20, 300 guns from the Royal Artillery unleashed 36,000 rounds. Most fell on the Young Fascist Division investing the point of attack, eight miles north of the earlier Guards foray and within smell of the briny Mediterranean. Infantrymen capered forward in the bright moonlight “as if they were going to a picnic,” one witness reported. An officer holding a hurricane lamp led minesweeping Scorpion tanks through choking dust toward the Wadi Zigzaou. They found a steep-banked freshet with water eight feet deep in places and protected by a parallel antitank ditch fanged with concrete dragons’ teeth.
The medieval flavor of this battlefield was reinforced by the appearance of “thug patrols,” British squads carrying scaling ladders, which they laid over the antitank ditch for riflemen to scoot across into the labyrinth of trenches and breastworks on the far side. Valentine crews at midnight dumped into the wadi dozens of fascines, dense bundles of sticks intended to give purchase to the tank tracks. Other Tommies trotted forward with tape to mark paths through the mine belts, or formed human ladders for their comrades to surmount the wadi banks.
So far, so good. Then the lead Valentine foundered in the mucky Zigzaou, blocking the only vehicle crossing. The tanks’ hot exhaust ignited the fascines; soon roaring bonfires added their illumination to the Very lights and dusty moonbeams. Four tanks managed to negotiate the wadi on a hastily built bypass, but a fifth stalled, blocking the gap cut in a minefield.
By first light on March 21, portions of four infantry battalions had gained a shallow bridgehead: a mile wide and half a mile deep. But with aircraft hampered by foul weather, even 300 guns could not, as one general had advised, “pound the objectives to powder and render the defenders imbecile.” Italian gunnery intensified in daylight, enfilading the wadi with sheets of fire. German grenadiers and artillery soon reinforced the Young Fascists. Casualties soared. Tommies spent the day trying to winkle defenders out of their pillboxes and waiting for darkness so the Valentines could again force a passage across the wadi. British engineers managed to build only one of three planned crossings over the Zigzaou. “Soon a vague feeling spread from soldier to soldier that something is wrong,” one witness reported, “that someone is making a hash of things.”
In the small hours of March 22, forty-two Valentines were able to cross the wadi, but their tracks chewed up the delicate causeway and no antitank guns or other vehicles could follow. Thick overcast limited air support, and a cloudburst swelled the Zigzaou, further undoing the engineers’ handiwork. Ammo carriers plodded forward with their heavy green boxes, and litter bearers shuttled to and from the rear without ever bothering to fold their stretchers. “My operations progressing well,” Montgomery cabled Alexander at 11:45 A.M. on the twenty-second. “Suggest you announce that my operations are proceeding satisfactorily and according to plan.”
One hour and fifty-five minutes after this inanity went out, the 7,000-man 15th Panzer Division counterattacked in three columns from an assembly area seven miles northwest of Wadi Zigzaou. Thirty tanks and two infantry battalions slammed into the bridgehead, gripping the British in such an intimate embrace that despite fairing weather Allied pilots hesitated to fire for fear of killing their own. Panzers methodically obliterated one strong point after another, grinding in the slit trenches. Soon thirty-five Valentines were reduced to smoking hulks. The Zigzaou’s seething ravine became an abattoir, with bodies beached on the mud or floating heavily in the stream. As shrapnel frothed the water around them, bare-chested Sikh sappers toiled to repair the causeway with steel mesh and duckboards amid the improbable battle cry of “More fascines!”
“Crowds of men wounded and unwounded flitted like wraiths through the haze,” the correspondent Jack Belden wrote. “Some crawled. Some stumbled. Some marched erect.” Most, in fact, crawled, often toward the rear on hands and knees in single file across fifty yards of steel-swept no-man’s-land. Snatches of incongruous conversation drifted above the shell fire. “Organization,” a voice called in the gloaming. “That’s the trouble.”
By nightfall the bridgehead was all but gone. The 50th Division’s 151st Brigade alone had 600 casualties. A drift to the rear continued. Someone had made a hash of things.
Montgomery disliked being awakened even for good news and not since Alamein had aides dared disturb his repose. But there was no sugaring this pill. At two A.M. on Tuesday, March 23, he was roused with word that his XXX Corps commander, General Oliver W. H. Leese, needed to see him. The huge, toothy Leese met Montgomery in the latter’s cramped map lorry, ten miles southeast of the battlefield. The 50th Division had pulled nearly all surviving troops back across the Zigzaou, Leese reported. A follow-on British thrust had been canceled. Casualties were heavy. The attack had failed.
Montgomery kept his composure until Leese left with orders to return in the morning. The Eighth Army chief of staff, Brigadier Francis “Freddie” de Guingand, found his commander tousled and stunned amid the tacked-up maps, his normally impassive countenance now dissolved with worry. For the first time in ten months, Eighth Army was withdrawing. The infernal rumble of artillery rattled the lorry—“a whole night being shelled like hell,” De Guingand later recalled. In a small voice Montgomery asked, “What am I to do, Freddie?”
The answer lay on the map, and within two hours Montgomery had found it, along with his composure. The Matmata Hills—a “jagged purple coxcomb” drenched with the scent of wildflowers, as one soldier wrote—extended at a right angle from the Mareth Line, roughly paralleling the Mediterranean coast for a hundred miles. Only the narrow Tebaga Gap pierced the range, fifty crow-flying miles west of Mareth, and only through this pass could the Axis defenses be outflanked. It was in that direction that Montgomery had dispatched his New Zealand Corps more than a week earlier with orders to turn the enemy line. The circuitous 200-mile expedition took the Kiwis past the arid land of the Troglodytes, an ancient people who lived like moles in subterranean hovels and whose strange language Herodotus had likened to the cry of a bat. The cavalcade also drove through a locust plague of biblical intensity: millions of insects borne on a hot, southwesterly wind pelted windshields and tank turrets. But by midafternoon on March 21, the corps vanguard had pressed into Tebaga Gap.
Alerted by Luftwaffe reconnaissance, General Messe and his lieutenants knew of this flanking peril; alerted by Ultra, the British knew they knew. Wehrmacht legions sidled westward, first the 164th Division, then eventually the 21st and 15th Panzer Divisions. A promising Kiwi attack on the night of the twenty-first took 850 prisoners at a cost of only sixty-five casualties. But then lethargy and caution, those handmaidens of battlefield stalemate, prevented quick exploitation before Axis reinforcements arrived in force. A golden chance to fall on the enemy rear was lost.
No matter. Montgomery had regained his vim. At 4:30 A.M. on March 23, he alerted the New Zealand Corps to a complete change of plans. Rather than serve as a sideshow, the Kiwis would deliver the main blow. Three divisions under General Leese would remain on the coast to occupy enemy defenders at Mareth. But reinforcements would add weight to the New Zealand attack, and Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, who had waited in vain with his X Corps to crash through a Leese-made hole at Mareth, would assume command of this new, left-hook assault, code-named SUPERCHARGE II. “Am sending Horrocks to take charge,” Montgomery added in his predawn message. “Am sure you will understand.”
One man who did not understand was the New Zealanders’ legendary commander, Lieutenant General Bernard C. Freyberg. English-born but raised in New Zealand, Freyberg had been a dentist before finding his true calling as warrior of Homeric strength and courage. Known as Tiny to his troops, he had a skull the size of a medicine ball, with a pushbroom mustache and legs that extended like sycamore trunks from his khaki shorts. In the Great War, he had won the Victoria Cross on the Somme, served as a pallbearer for his great friend Rupert Brooke, and emerged so seamed by shrapnel that when Churchill once persuaded him to display his wounds the count reached twenty-seven. More were to come. Oarsman, boxer, swimmer of the English Channel, he had been medically retired for “aortic incompetence” in the 1930s before being summoned back to uniform. No greater heart beat in British battle dress. Churchill a month earlier had proclaimed Freyberg “the salamander of the British empire,” an accolade that raised Kiwi hackles—“Wha’ in ’ell’s a ‘sallymander’?”—until the happy news spread that the creature mythically could pass through fire unharmed. “Simple as a child and as cunning as a Maori dog,” Freyberg was both superstitious—he refused, for example, to look at a new moon through glass—and literate. In his raspy voice he enjoyed reciting Mrs. Bennet’s gleeful prattle in Pride and Prejudice upon learning that her daughter Lizzy is to marry the rich Mr. Darcy: “Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me? I shall go distracted!”
The Salamander was displeased at being supplanted by Horrocks, who was six years younger as well as junior in grade. Freyberg seemed “grim, firm, and not at all forthcoming,” the British official history recorded, while Horrocks “felt embarrassed and was annoyed too.” Montgomery sought to make amends for his offense by sending each man a bottle of brandy, while De Guingand addressed all messages to “my dear Generals” and jokingly referred to them as “Hindenburg and Ludendorff.”
Montgomery set aside thoughts of Tunis and Sicily long enough to concoct a plan worthy of his reputation. Insisting that SUPERCHARGE II go forward as quickly as possible, he also proposed an unusual late-afternoon attack out of the southwest: at that hour, the sinking sun would blind Axis defenders. After a frantically busy night of creeping forward and digging in, by dawn on March 26 some 40,000 attackers and 250 tanks lay hidden near an old Roman wall that stretched four miles across Tebaga Gap. From their camouflaged holes, the men watched the sun march across the African sky until it was directly behind them. Officers played chess in their slit trenches to while away the hours.
Then, at 3:30 P.M., low waves of British and American bombers attacked Axis targets marked with red and blue artillery smoke shells. Thirty minutes later, the Royal Artillery erupted in a thundering cannonade as a providential sandstorm further blinded the defenders. At precisely 4:15 P.M. the first tanks surged from their revetments, with shrieking Maori riflemen clinging to their hulls. One Kiwi commander recounted:
The infantry climbed out of their pits—where there had been nothing visible there were now hundreds of men who shook out into long lines and followed on five hundred yards behind the tanks. At 4:23 P.M. the barrage lifted a hundred yards—an extraordinary level line of bursting shells—tanks and infantry closed to it, and the assault was on.
Through the gap they poured, the forward edge of the advancing ranks marked with swirling orange smoke for the benefit of Allied pilots. “Speed up, straight through, no halting,” officers called. Two German battalions buckled and collapsed. On one particularly bloody hill, a brigadier reported “dead and mangled Germans everywhere, more than I had seen in a small area since the Somme in 1916.” British tank commanders heaved grenades from their open hatches and Maoris pelted the fleeing enemy troops with stones when their ammunition ran out. To the east, Gurkhas from the 4th Indian Division went baying into battle “not unlike hounds finding the scent.”
By nightfall, the attack had penetrated four miles into the pass. Tanks “trundled as snails feeling their way” in the darkness until midnight, when the rising moon emerged from the clouds to reveal the extraordinary spectacle of British and German forces hurrying side by side toward the vital road junction of El Hamma at the head of Tebaga Gap.
It was a race the Germans won, if only temporarily. In the early morning of March 27 an improvised antitank screen of eleven guns—as crudely effective as a dropped portcullis—delayed the British for more than a day three miles south of El Hamma. That was long enough. By the time the blockade was flanked, General Messe had adroitly pulled back his forces from both Mareth and Tebaga Gap toward another fortified gap at Wadi Akarit, sixty miles north. “Like a black snake squirming over the ground we could see the lorries and guns of the German tail making their escape,” a disappointed British soldier reported. “Once again…a clever escape.”
Montgomery had won a battle but not a resounding victory, and certainly not the war. Three German divisions, with the help of Italian cannon fodder, had thwarted three British corps for a fortnight. True, the price was dear, and this Axis army could hardly afford heavy casualties. Seven thousand Axis prisoners were taken in the Mareth actions, a third of them German; the cost to Eighth Army totaled 4,000, including 600 casualties in the breakthrough at Tebaga Gap. After the battle a single British private was seen leading several hundred Italian prisoners, who chattered like parrots; asked if he needed help escorting them to their cages, the young soldier answered, “Oh, Lord, no! They trust me.”
“It was the most enjoyable battle I have ever fought,” Montgomery exulted. Perhaps so, although local legend attributed the severe five-year drought that began in 1943 to Montgomery’s imprecations on the land. Yet Eighth Army had forced the outer gate to begin its inexorable march up Tunisia’s east coast toward Tunis. That was plain, and every sensible German and Italian officer knew that the two Axis armies now faced mortal peril from the two Allied armies.
Yet Eighth Army still seemed to lack an instinct for the jugular. In boxing terms, it was a poor finisher. General Freyberg ordered his advance squadrons to bypass Gabès on the morning of March 29 and give chase on the coastal road—ordered this only to learn that at that very moment the spearhead commander was accepting the keys to the city from the Gabès mayor. The 4th Indian Division, already delayed a critical twelve hours by a horrendous traffic jam, was forced to wait at Gabès while the 51st Highlanders donned their kilts for a proper march-through with pipers. Again pursuit languished. “The enemy does not follow,” the 90th Light Division war diary noted. The retreating Axis soldiers had time to pilfer tables, mirrors, women’s dresses, even pianos. The British had to settle for six captured railcars full of German sausage.
Some of Montgomery’s admirers considered his mid-battle switch from a frontal assault to the sweeping left hook among the boldest decisions in his glorious career. Yet a more imaginative plan at the outset, enforced by a more attentive commander, might have made Mareth the decisive battle it could have been. “We never lost the initiative, and we made the enemy dance to our tune the whole time,” Montgomery claimed on March 31. That assertion was questionable. He had violated his own wise precept “to concentrate all your forces and give a mighty crack.” He also had underestimated the resourcefulness of his enemy; the technical requirements of fighting in hill country; and the difficulty of crossing a stoutly defended watercourse, the Zigzaou. That boded ill for Eighth Army after years in the desert: the army and its commander would encounter more hills in northern Tunisia and many more in Italy, along with innumerable rivers. Major General Francis Tuker, the 4th Indian Division commander, concluded, “There was, in Eighth Army, an apparent lack of purpose at this time.”
In the months after Mareth, Montgomery acknowledged that the failure of his coastal attack had required him to recast his entire plan. There was no shame in deft improvisation, to be sure. But soon he was asserting that the left wing had always been designated to deliver the fatal blow. By the end of the war he even seemed to believe it, having perhaps persuaded himself through repetition. Perhaps the high bar of infallibility demanded no miscues, no false starts, no desperate two A.M. wailing about what to do now. As they cleared Gabès for the long, last march toward Tunis, his men gathered themselves for the sort of war—one with mountains and rivers and allies—that would confront them for the duration.