Chapter 14: Fight for Mareth Line. Eisenhower. Dangers of Hitting Our Troops whilst Strafing
March 13,1943, we are still at Ben Gardane, near Medanine , Tunisia. and we are told by our squadron commander that the push should start tomorrow, when the British 8th Army will attempt to breach the German defenses at the Mareth Line. Our squadron, during a dive bombing and strafing run, encountered a large formation of Me-109s and Mc-202s. We shot down three Me-109s, Lt. John Gilbertson got one as did Lts. John Stefanik and T.T. Williams.
We paid a heavy price for this, losing Major Whorley the CO of the 314 squadron, Major Knight of Headquarters of the 57th Group, and four pilots from the 64th squadron. Capt. Jim Curl got one probable.
March 14,1943: Ben Gardane. To our surprice today, Majors Knight and Whorley and one missing Lt. from the 64th squadron, turned up after having been unaccounted for 24 hours. This was good news!
March 18th. This morning the air offensive began, with our planes operating with the British 8th Army (on our side of the Mareth Line). We are escorting A20s, B25s and Marylands for heavy daylight bombing on the Ist Army Side (the Combined British and American Ist and Fifth Armies that had landed at Oran) the B17s, B26s and BL5s are to do the heavy work, with Spitfires and P38s escorting them. They are to bomb the German landing grounds to help us maintain air superiority during the breakthrough.
The entire show will be run by the RAF’s Air Marshalls Teddar and Coningham, and Vice Air Marshall Broadhurst. In order to avoid duplicate air strikes or confusion, each Air Wing will operate in certain zones. We have been suffering through daily sand storms for the past several days, making our lives miserable !
The game plan is as follows: We are to use 40 lb. wing bombs, and to conserve the heavier 500
pounders for action when the enemy tries to evacuate. There are to be a minimum of prisoners taken. So last night they turned the Gurkhas loose. They were told to do their usual job of killing as many crews of enemy cannon they could, and to spike the cannons before withdrawing and to bring in one prisoner for questioning. After having seen the manner in which his fellow soldiers met their death at the hands of the Gurkhas wielding long curved kukris (knives) he can be expected to answer any questions asked of him.
The fearsome Gurkha with his kukri unsheathed. Thankfully, he was on our side!
The push is expected to be over in about four or five days. Shortly after the breakthrough is accomplished, we can be expected to move up to a new airfield in pursuit of the Africa Korps.
March 20th: the softening-up process has begun with A20s and B25s passing over us very half hour enroute to the front. We sent out two dive bombing missions to attack motor transport. It is believed that if we can destroy one thousand enemy motor transports, he will be unable to retreat effectively, and that will finish him. Our land push is scheduled to start around midnight tonight.
At 9.30 PM our barrage began, and it rivaled the intensity of the 24 hour barrage utilized at El Alamein. The battle of the Mareth Line has now begun. In addition to the frontal attack, the New Zealanders set out on a long trip in the desert inland, to try to out-flank Rommel at the El Hamma Gap in the Mareth Line. Between the 8th Army on one side of the Mareth
Line, and the Ist Army on the other, the ring around Rommel is starting to close!
In an interesting sidelight to the above, we received a visit from General Eisenhower, who was visiting with General Montgomery and some of his various units. He was made aware of our contribution to the success of the British 8th Army’s success, going back to before the El Alamein breakthrough, and he presented decorations to some of our pilots.
On the extreme north of Tunisia, the Ist Army has advanced to within 15 miles of Tunis. Our planes intercepted a group of Stuka’s, and Me109s , and we shot down three Stukas.
There was only one unhappy side to all the above, in that our planes dive bombed the New Zealanders by mistake. This caused General Montgomery to become quite peeved with us.
We are constantly kept awake at night, by individual German planes that drop flares and a stick
of bombs, then go away. The result is that we try to nap whenever we can during the day, to make up for the loss of sleep at night. We do not suffer casualties from these nightly disturbances because we roll off our cots into our slit trenches which are placed right outside the tent walls. We do not tie the tent walls down with pegs, so that we can roll right through them when needed.
March 22nd we mounted an attack on an estimated motor transport unit of 800 vehicles. The
flight consisted of 36 P40s with 500 pound bombs, and 12 escorting P40s This raid was a success and all planes returned in spite of heavy ack ack . Lest you think that our planes just have
to fly over a road filled with motor transport, and blaze away with our 8 x 50 caliber Machine Guns, let me explain that this is tantamount to committing suicide! As an example, take the case of our squadron commander, prior to moving overseas. He burned himself while lighting his makeshift gas-fired tent stove.
As a result a new squadron commander was appointed who went overseas with us, while he remained behind in the hospital. While we were in Libya, he rejoined us as a pilot replacement. To his detriment, he had not had any instructions from the RAF as our pilots had received upon our arrival here. On his first flight with us, he elected to fly down the road blazing away at a long line of motors transport.
In his zeal to destroy as many vehicles as possible in one strafing run, he did not realize that he would fly directly into the line of fire of anyone sitting in one of those vehicles with a machine gun pointed straight up! As a result his plane was so damaged that he had to make a forced landing immediately with his wheels up. He landed in a German mine field. And when he attempted to walk out unaided, he stepped on a mine and was killed.
One of our P40s captured by the Italians!
Our pilots were satisfied to cross a road containing motors transports (or trains) at an oblique angle and so to strike only 5 or 6 vehicles, while remaining over the road just momentarily!
We are now told that the poor Kiwis (New Zealanders) that we had mistakenly bombed several days ago were once again bombed by mistake, this time by the British 239 Wing. They lost some armor, motor transport and a platoon as a result of these errors.
So ends part 14 of my wartime memoirs, 'in medeas res', (Latin for ‘in the middle of the thing'). The thing being the battle of the Mareth Line”, Tunisia !