Battle of Enfidaville, 19-21 April 1943

The battle of Enfidaville (19-21 April 1943) was the Eighth Army's last significant battle in North Africa, and saw them fail to break through unexpectedly tough Axis resistance in the mountainous terrain around Enfidaville.

After forcing the Axis troops to abandon the Gabes Gap (6 April 1943) the Eighth Army pushed north further into Tunisia. Sfax fell on 10 April, and in the process Monty won a bet with Eisenhower that the port would fall by 15 April. His prize was a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, which he insisted on collecting and used as his personal transport for the rest of the war.

X Corps captured Sousee on 12 April and reached the outskirts of Enfidaville on 13 April. This was the eastern end of the Axis 'Last Stand' line, which ran north-west from Enfidaville towards Pon de Fahs, Medjez el Bab and Sedjenane.

 General Alexander and General Montgomery, 1942
General Alexander
and
General Montgomery,
1942

While his forces waited to the south of Enfidaville Montgomery was informed that the British First Army was going to make the main effort in the final attack on Tunis, taking advantage of the plains to the west of the city (Operation Vulcan). Montgomery's Eighth Army was to tie down as many Axis troops as possible around Enfidaville. In order to strengthen the First Army the 1st Armoured Division was transferred from the Eighth Army on 18 April. Montgomery wasn't entirely happy with this role, and instead suggested a large scale attack at Enfidaville. This would start with a massive artillery bombardment. Three infantry divisions would break through the Axis defensive positions, and the armour would then dash north and advance at least 20 miles. The overall aim was probably to reach the Cape Bon peninsula and prevent it from being turned into a defensive bastion. Alexander approved this plan.

The detailed plan of attack was largely produced by General Horrocks at X Corps, as Montgomery was increasingly distracted by the upcoming invasion of Sicily. The British underestimated the strength of the defensives, believing that they were only facing six battalions, when the true figure was actually twenty-three. The attack would also be conducted in mountainous terrain, very different to the wide open expanses of the desert where the Eighth Army was used to operating.

The plan was for the main attack to be made by the 4th Indian and 2nd New Zealand Divisions, who would advance into the hills west of Enfidaville, and then turn right once they were through the enemy defences and reach the coast behind their lines. 50th Division would protect their right flank, on the coast, while the 7th Armoured Division would protect the left flank.

On the night of 19-20 April the Axis positions were hit by a heavy air and artillery bombardment, followed by a ground attack. The artillery bombardment forced the Italian defenders to abandon part of their main defensive line, and Enfidaville fell, but only after heaving fighting. The main advance came on the coast, on the 50th Division front. Further inland the Axis forces were able to hold onto their defensive positions, which were built on higher ground, and 4th Indian and 2nd New Zealand divisions made very little progress.

On 20 and 21 April there were heavy counterattacks, led by General Bayerlein, the commander of the German forces in the 1st Italian Army. The British were able to take Takrouna and part of Djebel Garci, twelve miles inland, but at heavy cost. The counterattacks and the heavy losses inland helped convince Montgomery that there was no point going on with the battle. The defenders had a series of strong positions, and were clearly willing to fight to hold onto them. On 21 April the Eighth Army attack was suspended, although at that point the plan was to renew the attack along the coast after four days.

The coastal attack was to began on 29 April. The 2nd New Zealand Division and the 201st Guards Brigade were given the task of defending Montgomery's left flank, while the 4th Indian Division and the 56th British Division made the main attack along the coast. If all had gone well then the armour would have attempted to advance towards Hammamet, on the coast. However the preliminary attacks failed - the inexperienced 56th Division didn’t cope well when it came under artillery fire for the first time on 28 April. Montgomery realised that he was attacking into ideal defensive terrain, and asked for permission to abandon the attack on Hammamet and limit his activities to local attacks. Alexander agreed to this, but then on 30 April ordered Montgomery to sent the best units he could spare to join the First Army. Montgomery chose to send his most experienced divisions, the 7th Armoured and 4th Indians, as well as the 201st Guards Brigade and some of his medium artillery. These units went on to play a significant part in Operation Strike (5-13 May 1943), the final Allied offensive in Tunisia.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 July 2017), Battle of Enfidaville, 19-21 April 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/name.html

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