New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
ALL February 1943 the New Zealand Division was in bivouac areas near Tripoli, but it had been given its role, and planning and reconnaissance were going ahead to carry out an attack round the flank of the Mareth line on the assumption that the enemy would make a stand. Meanwhile, elements of the Eighth Army had pushed westwards across the Tunisian frontier and were facing the Mareth defences.
The enemy, fighting a rearguard action to delay Eighth Army's advance as much as possible, withdrew 21 Panzer Division to central Tunisia and with 10 Panzer Division made a determined attack on the American forces, commencing in the latter half of February. This attack succeeded beyond expectations, causing the Americans to retreat hastily with considerable losses and to evacuate Gafsa, Kasserine Pass, and Sbeitla, the enemy forces reaching a point within a few miles of Thala, thereby threatening to turn First Army's right flank.
The Eighth Army commander, in response to an urgent request from General Alexander, hastened his advance towards the Mareth line so that on 28 February all dispositions, including medical, were made for a continued gradual advance.
On 28 February Commander 30 Corps called a conference of heads of services and stated that the increased tempo of the Eighth Army advance had been largely instrumental in forcing the enemy forces in central Tunisia to withdraw and in permitting the First Army, American, and French forces to advance and retake most of the ground previously lost. It was then pointed out that 10 and 21 Panzer Divisions were moving south and that a heavy attack by the major part of the enemy panzer forces was expected to be made against Eighth Army some time on or after 3 March.
The intention of the enemy appeared to be to catch Eighth Army unbalanced and surround it forward of the Ben Gardane bottleneck, or at least cause us grievous losses in men and equipment and thus weaken and delay our offensive. It was thus necessary for Eighth Army to alter its disposition to that of strong defence. For these reasons 201 Guards Brigade, 8 Armoured Brigade, and 2 NZpage 420
The left-hook round the Mareth line took the New Zealand Corps through broken country south and west of the Matmata Hills. Because of the rough going an air evacuation centre was established by 5 Field Ambulance near Bir Soltane on 23 March, and by the end of the month 402 patients out of a total of 1190 sick and wounded had been flown out to Senem airfield near Medenine.page 421
Division were hurried forward to reinforce 7 Armoured Division and 51 (Highland) Division already in position, and so re-establish the balance which had been lost during the accelerated advance. It was an emergency move for 2 NZ Division and a very fast one. Orders were received on 1 March, and the same morning the first column was on the move. The road was largely causeway across salt marsh, making travel off it impossible. Within Tunisia the marsh changed to soft and hummocky sand. Within forty-eight hours the entire force had completed the 180 miles over a single road, had dug in, and was ready to defend its sector of Eighth Army's line. A new phase in the North African campaign was about to begin.