Operation Pugilist

Operation Pugilist was an offensive operation launched by the British 8th Army during the Tunisia Campaign. The British troops hoped to break through the Mareth Line guarded by the Axis forces and ultimately the British successively broke through the defense but failed to fully defeat the Axis forces. The latter retreated and organized a new line to defend against the British.

In the Battle of Medenine broke out on March 6, 1943, the Axis forces led by Rommel attacked the British Eighth Army. Since the 8th Army had a tight defense, the Axis offensive failed that day and lost of a large number of weapons and equipment, making the difference in strength between the two sides further increased. After that, Rommel was removed from Africa and the Italian General Giovanni Messe was responsible for commanding the Axis forces in southern Tunisia. Most of the Axis troops commanded by Messe had followed Rommel for a long term to fight in North Africa, but Messe was just transferred to Africa as the commander of these forces. His command capabilities would have to stand the test.

After the Axis attack failed, the British planned to break through the Mareth Line with one action. The 30th Army unit under the 8th Army directly attacked from the front line of the defense. The British successfully entered into the line of defense on the day of 19th, but the German armored forces immediately launched a counter attack and re-closed the breaking point three days later. Because the nearby terrain was easy to defend, it was difficult for the British to quickly break through the defense line. If the British forced its way to attack, it would certainly suffer great losses. Frontal attack, however, was not the entire plan of the British troops. The British reconnaissance troop Long Range Desert Group had found that from the mountain area on the left side of the defense line, they could detour to the rear of the defense. Montgomery decided to send troops from the left side and straightly entered into the rear of the enemy. Through bypassing the strong fortifications, it could reduce casualties. This task was given to the New Zealand Corps to complete, which was expanded from the previous New Zealand 2nd Division. New Zealand Corps arrived at Tebaga Gap on the day of 21st, which was the rear of the defense line of the Axis forces. But two German divisions blocked the way, therefore offensive of New Zealand Corps was blocked by the Germans. Meanwhile, the frontal attack of the 30th Army was still not effective and it failed to broke through the Mareth Line. On 23rd when the battle was stalled, Montgomery decided to send the 10th Army to reinforce New Zealand Corps to exert greater pressure on Tebaga Gap behind the Mareth Line. The 10th Army contained the British 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions, equipped with a large number of tanks and other heavy weapons. The new offensive was launched on the 26th when the 10th Armored Army quickly broke through the defense of the German forces in Tebaga Gap and advanced towards the northeast coast. If the 10th Armored Army arrived at the coast and blocked the roads, the way for the Axis forces to retreat would be cut off. The Germans immediately fought back against the flanks of the 10th Army, but it was not successful. After realizing that the way to retreat would possibly be cut off, the Axis forces fully retreated on the 28th from the Mareth Line. The 10th Army failed to catch up and block the way before the Axis forces retreated. Afterwards, the British forces chased the Germans, but the Axis forces still succeeded in retreating to Wadi Akarit and organized a new line of defense.

Although the 8th Army failed to complete all of its intended targets, it still made a great victory. The British troops crossed the Mareth Line defended by the Axis and captured 7,000 Axis forces. Several Axis troops were inflicted heavy losses. The 8th Army’s casualties were about 4,000 people, which had no effect on its overall strength. The British troops’ operation compressed the entire Axis forces in Tunisia to a smaller area. Once the Allies forces from east and west directions successfully joined each other, the Axis forces would be very close to defeat.

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