October 23- November 2, 1942 El Alamein - History

October 23- November 2, 1942 El Alamein - History

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Rommel in his command halftrack

German forces, under the command of General Rommel, met the British forces, under the command of General Montgomery at El Alamein. Montgomery had a two-to-one advantage in tanks, and was victorious. It was one of the largest tank battles in history. The victory in El Alamein eliminated the German threat to the Suez Canal and the Middle East. Together with the German stalemate in Stalingrad represented the high water mark in German advances and with defeats in both places began the slow German defeat.

The German led by Field Marshall Rommel had advanced deep into Egypt. The Germans had defeated British troops at the Battle of Gazala. The British withdrew to within 50 miles Alexandria and the vital Suez Canal. The British commander General Claude Auchinleck decided that this was the right spot to hold back the Germans. His lines were short, with the Qattar Depression coming to within 40 miles of the coast the Germans would not be able to outflank his forces. Rommel’s forces meanwhile were fighting at the end of their logistic lines and had trouble obtaining enough supplies. The Allies were able to stop the German in what became known as the First Battle of El Alamein. Rommel at this point decided he could not advance any further and had his troops dig in. A counteroffensive by the British failed to dislodge the Germans.

General Sir Alan Brooks replaced general Auchinleck. Brooks wanted to achieve a decisive victory over the German Afrika Corps. With his army close to Alexandria and the battle considered critical, he was able to receive the needed supplies to build up his forces. The Germans knew that an offensive against their lines was inevitable and had built strong defensive lines that included 500,000 mines. By late October the Allies had 195,000 men and 1,029 tanks, including new American Sherman tanks facing 116,000 men and 547 tanks for the Germans.

The first phase of the attack began on the night of October 23rd. The Allies let loose a massive artillery barrage against the Germans. Together with the barrage Allied infantry moved forward. They were followed by an engineer whose task was to clear the minefields. The minefield was deeper than expected and although the tanks advanced by dawn, they had not achieved their objectives. During the following day, the Allies launched an attack on the Northern part of the line. The allies managed to advance but did not achieve a breakout.

For the next nine days a battle of attrition took place in which each battle was fought to a near standstill, but in each battle, the British and German lost the same amount of tanks, but for the Germans and Italians this was a battle they could not win. They had started the action with half the number of tanks as the British, and by November 2nd they were down 30 operational tanks compared to 500 British tanks. The Germans were out of fuel, with the British successfully sinking the two tankers sent by the Germans to North Africa to refuel Rommel. On November 3rd the Allies launched a what they hoped would be a breakout attack on the Axis lines. The attack was successful, and they broke through. Despite orders from Hitler to hold the line at all cost, the remaining German forces were forced to either withdraw or be captured. The threat to Egypt was over, and this together with Stalingrad was the turning point in the war against Germany.

The Germans and Italians lost 9,000 troops killed, 15,000 wounded and 35,000 prisoners, while the Allies lost 4,810 dead and 8,950 injured.

Chestnut Trees on the Thames

Following the First Battle of El Alamein, which had stalled the Axis advance, General Bernard Montgomery took command of the British Commonwealth’s Eighth Army in August 1942. The Second Battle of El Alamein marked a significant turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. The battle lasted from 23 October to 3 November 1942, and began with the major offensive Operation Lightfoot.

With Operation Lightfoot, Montgomery hoped to carve two corridors through the Axis minefields in the north. Allied armour would then pass through the Axis defences and defeat Rommel’s German armoured divisions. Diversionary attacks in the south would keep the rest of the Axis forces from moving northwards.

Success in the battle turned the tide in the North African Campaign. Allied victory at El Alamein ended German hopes of occupying Egypt, controlling access to the Suez Canal, and gaining access to the Middle Eastern oil fields.

An extract from Campaign 158: El Alamein 1942

The battle was set to begin on the night of 23 October. Lined up that night along the edge of the British minefields were XXX and XIII Corps. LtGen Leese’s XXX Corps was on the right with, from north to south, 9th Australian Division, 51st (Highland) Division, 2nd New Zealand Division, 1st South African Division and 4th Indian Division. These were in the line from the coast to the south of the Ruweisat Ridge. From there to the Qattara Depression was Horrocks’ XIII Corps containing 50th Division, 44th Division, 7th Armoured Division and 1st French Brigade. Lumsden’s X Corps, with 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions, was in the rear of XXX Corps near the coast. The recently arrived 8th Armoured Division was destined not to take part in the battle as a division. It had been split, with its 24th Armoured Brigade under the command of 10th Armoured Division and the remainder of the division grouped together into a formation called ‘Hammerforce’ and placed under the command of 1st Armoured Division.

Montgomery’s final orders for the offensive, code named ‘Lightfoot’, called for three simultaneous attacks to be made. In the north, XXX Corps would penetrate the enemy line and form a bridgehead beyond the main Axis defence zone, advancing to a forward position code named ‘Oxalic’, then assist X Corps to pass through. In the south, XIII Corps would penetrate the enemy positions near Munassib and pass the 7th Armoured Division through towards Jebel Kalakh. The division was told not to get itself into a slogging match, but to preserve its strength for later mobile operations, its main task to threaten the enemy in order to keep his armour in the south. Finally, XIII Corps would use the 1st French Brigade to secure the Qaret el Himeimat and the El Taqa plateau. Both XXX and XIII Corps were then to begin the crumbling operations to grind down the enemy infantry and draw the Panzers onto the armoured divisions and the massed anti-tank guns. If the enemy armoured divisions failed to come forward to meet the challenge, 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions were to seek positions from which they could prevent the enemy from interfering with XXX Corps’ crumbling operations.

The main weight of Eighth Army’s assault was with XXX Corps. Four of its divisions were to attack Axis minefields and defences then help carve out two cleared corridors for the armoured divisions. On the right, 9th Australian Division would attack eastwards from Tel El Eisa on its left, 51st Division would clear a path towards Kidney Ridge. Both of these divisions would cover the ground of 1st Armoured Division’s northern corridor through the enemy minefields. South of these divisions, 2nd New Zealand Division would clear towards the western end of the Miteiriya Ridge and 1st South African Division would attack across the main part of the ridge. These would then cover the southern corridor through the minefields for 10th Armoured Division. On the extreme left of XXX Corps, the 4th Indian Division would take no major part in the opening attack, but would make threatening and diversionary raids from the western end of Ruweisat Ridge.

The battle opened with a tremendous artillery barrage at 2140hrs on 23 October. At first the guns opened up on the known locations of all enemy gun sites with anti-battery fire. This fire then switched to the forward edge of the enemy defences. As the infantry attacked, the artillery laid down a rolling barrage in front of them, lifting by measured amounts as the infantry moved forward. For the first time in the desert, there were sufficient anti-tank guns protecting the infantry to allow all of the 25-pdr weapons to be massed together under centralized command in their proper role as field guns. Medium and heavy guns of the Royal Artillery were added to produce the greatest concentrated barrage since the First World War. Ammunition supplies were unrestricted allowing the guns to fire at a prodigious rate. In the following twelve days of fighting, the 834 field guns fired altogether over one million rounds, an average of 102 rounds per gun per day. The rates for the other guns were even higher 133 rounds for the 4.5in guns and 157 for the 5.5in weapons.

The Desert Air Force added its weight to the bombardment by bombing known enemy gun positions and those German and Italian guns which returned fire. Specially equipped Wellington bombers also flew overhead, jamming the radio-telephony channels of the Axis forces in an effort to disrupt enemy communications. These measures effectively blocked off radio traffic for a period, adding to the confusion at Panzerarmee’s HQ as to the size and direction of the attack.

The four divisions of XXX Corps attacked together on a 16km front, each with two brigades forward. Each division had one regiment of Valentine tanks from 23rd Armoured Brigade in support, except Freyberg’s New Zealanders who had the whole of 9th Armoured Brigade under command. The four formations advanced across a kilometre of no-man’s-land and then began their attack through six kilometres of enemy-held territory towards their objective, phase line ‘Oxalic’.

Nearest the sea, the Australians attacked with 26th Brigade on the right and the 20th Brigade on the left. Its third brigade, 24th Brigade, made noisy feints towards the coast in an effort to draw fire. The right brigade reached ‘Oxalic’ after some fierce encounters with the enemy, but 20th Brigade was stopped about a kilometre short by stiff resistance. The Australian Division endured the same pattern of events that was being experienced by other attacking divisions. The first minefield and line of defence was crossed with no great difficulty, just as Rommel expected them to be. But, as the two brigades pushed on into the main German defence line and the second minefield, enemy resistance increased.

On the left of the Australians, the Highlanders of 51st Division advanced on a two-brigade front with 153rd Brigade on the right and 154th Brigade on the left. Each brigade moved with one battalion forward and the other two ready to follow up. They set out to the stirring sounds of regimental pipers marching at the head of the battalions. In order to maintain the momentum, when each intermediate phase line was reached, the forward battalion paused while the battalion to its rear leapfrogged over into the lead. This procedure was repeated across other phase lines towards ‘Oxalic’. The Highland Division had the most difficult task of XXX Corps, for its final objectives covered a width double the front of its start line. There was also a larger number of defended localities to be overcome, each of which had to be eliminated before the advance could continue. Progress at first was good, but it was gradually slowed down by the large numbers of casualties that the division was suffering. By dawn the Highland Division had not penetrated the enemy’s main defence line. The delays and difficulties met during the advance meant that the mine clearance teams hoping to open a corridor for 1st Armoured Division were delayed.

The 2nd New Zealand Division began its attack on the western end of Miteirya Ridge also on a two-brigade front, with just one battalion at a time in the lead. LtGen Freyberg had decided to use his two infantry brigades to fight their way to the ridge before introducing the full strength of 9th Armoured Brigade to pass through and get beyond the high ground. He wanted to save as much of his weight as he could for this final stage. The plan worked well and the New Zealander infantry, despite heavy casualties, cleared a way through the minefields to allow Brig Currie to get his tanks on the crest of the ridge just before dawn. The coming of daylight, however, brought accurate enemy fire which forced the armour back on to the reverse slopes.

MajGen Pienaar’s 1st South African Division advanced in much the same method as the New Zealanders. The infantry penetrated the minefields and cleared a way for some armoured support and the division was able, with great effort, to get onto the eastern end of the ridge. Difficulty was met in trying to get vehicles and heavy weapons forward which limited the strength of the division’s positions. It had hoped to get beyond the ridge and allow armoured cars and the tanks of 8th RTR to exploit the left hand of XXX Corps attack, but enemy resistance forced it to dig in along the ridge. Just a little further south, Indian 4th Division made threatening raids near Ruweisat Ridge to confuse the enemy with regard to the length of the main British attack.

In the main, the first twelve hours of XXX Corps’ attack had been fairly successful. LtGen Leese had got his divisions through most of the minefields and well into the enemy’s positions. Best of all, he had troops on the Miteirya Ridge, something that Rommel would have been horrified by had he been on the spot. This success was not mirrored during the night by X Corps. Each of its armoured divisions had the responsibility of clearing its own minefield gaps. The clearance teams were to work closely with the infantry to open three gaps for its parent division, each wide enough for tanks. It was planned that these gaps would be completely swept and marked during the hours of darkness, allowing the armoured divisions to exploit southwards from XXX Corps final objectives before dawn. They would then be ready to meet the expected Panzer counter-attacks on ground of their own choosing. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

The corps had priority on all forward tracks from 0200hrs. Its clearance teams came forward as planned but then worked in confusing and hazardous conditions to locate and clear mines by hand and with mine detectors. The northern corridor for 1st Armoured Division was located close to the junction of the Australian and Highland Divisions. Results that night were mixed with one marked gap actually completed through as far as the forward infantry, but the others slowed down by pockets of enemy resistance close to their routes. The other gap for 10th Armoured Division was located in the New Zealand sector further south. Here there was a little more success with four routes marked right up to the Miteirya Ridge, although only one was actually usable at the western end. Immense traffic jams at the eastern end of all the routes prevented many tanks getting through to the forward edge of the penetration. Those that did were met with heavy anti-tank fire from many parts of the enemy main defences that were still intact. By dawn his fire forced those tanks that had made it onto the ridge back over the crest to hull-down positions in the rear. In some cases the armour made a complete withdrawal right back off the ridge. When daylight came, neither 1st nor 10th Armoured Divisions were in a position to exploit XXX Corps’ penetration.

Down in the south, Horrocks’ XIII Corps had put in its attack the previous night in concert with those in the north. MajGen Harding’s 7th Armoured Division met the same resistance and difficulties when trying to penetrate the minefields as had the divisions of XXX and X Corps. The division’s right flank was protected by an attack by 131st Brigade of 44th Division which ran into difficulties soon after the start. Only the first of two large enemy minefields was actually penetrated by XIII Corps before dawn, but the attack helped confuse the enemy in the southern sector of the line as did BrigGen Koenig’s diversionary moves against Qaret el Himeimat and Naqb Rala with his Free French Brigade.

When details began to filter into Montgomery’s HQ early in the morning, he was rather pleased with the preliminary results. The attacks had gone reasonably well, although X Corps did not have as many tanks forward through the minefields as hoped. Enemy resistance had been fierce as had been expected, but progress had been made all along the line. If the bridgehead could be strengthened as planned, crumbling attacks could begin to grind down Axis infantry and provoke a showdown with the Panzer divisions. The outcome of the battle would then depend on who could best endure the battle of attrition that would follow.

Gen. Erwin Rommel wita się z włoskimi oficerami po przybyciu do Libii, 1941 r.

El Alamein – the Eighth Army launches ‘Supercharge’

Posed photograph of infantry sheltering from ‘enemy shellfire’ beside a knocked-out German PzKpfw III tank, 2 November 1942. The remains of a knocked-out German PzKpfw IV tank, blown up by sappers to prevent it being recovered by the enemy, 2 November 1942.

The Alamein battlefield was hotting up again as Montgomery launched Operation Supercharge – the new attack designed to make the final breakthrough. Henry Ritchie’s Artillery troop had moved up to new positions in the last two days but they were still under regular shellfire in the [permalink text=”bridgehead area”]. When they were not shooting they spent most of their time in their slit trenches. He describes the situation on the battlefield at this time:

The whole area had become a cemetery of blazing tanks, corpses and wrecked anti-tank guns. In nearly two years of warfare I had never seen so much smoking wreckage littering the battlefield. Vehicles were mangled and twisted, water bottles, tin helmets and rifles were lying everywhere intermingled with the hastily dug graves of the unknown dead.

On the 2nd November 1942 they prepared for another early morning shoot. Ritchie had been in the field for two years and on the El Alamein battlefield for nine days, most of which had been spent under intermittent shell fire:

We had some biscuit burgoo and two spoonfuls of chopped up Canadian tinned bacon for breakfast which we ate quickly with a spoon as there was a barrage due to be put over at 07.45 hrs.

A couple of Messerschmits had dropped a few bombs behind us and about a dozen Sherman tanks, rolling on chattering tracks had just made their noisy and dusty way through our guns to support the attack. There was a certain roused air of confidence as it was predicted that this could be the day of the break out from the bridgehead. A few shells in the ritual of the dawn chorus were coming our way canvassing for death, but nothing much to worry about.

At half past seven everything was ready and the Troop stood to its guns. The first salvos went over, dead on time at a quarter to eight. Some enemy artillery began to take a bit of interest in us, just as they had done scores of times before. Just a few plusses and a minus.

I was standing at the trail of the gun and we were about half way through the shoot when there was a loud rushing, explosion and a searing blast of heat. In a blurred second of lightening fast reaction I put up my hands and arms to protect my eyes, when I felt as if I had been hit on my right arm and my right leg with a fourteen pound hammer. The next thing I knew was that I was on the ground and my mouth was full of sand and dirt. I tried to get up but couldn`t.

He was tended to by his colleagues and fortunate to be in a position where a Medical Officer was within reach.

El Alamein 1942: Wounded British soldiers wait on stretchers for attention at an Advanced Dressing Station. A Royal Army Medical Corps officer gives a drink to one of the wounded.

I suddenly became aware of a searing pain in my leg and, when I tried to move my arm, it hurt like the devil. Things became very thick and hazy and I felt locked in a spinning, blinding light. I vaguely remembered the M.O. arriving and filling a syringe. I felt a slight prick in my arm then I sank into a pool of blackness. When I woke up I was lying in a soft warm bed in the 6th General Hospital in Alexandria.

This was the end of Henry Ritchie’s time at the front line. After recovery he became a gunnery instructor in England for the remainder of the war. This episode also marks the end of his vivid memoir. See Henry R. Ritchie: The Fusing Of The Ploughshare, the Story of a Yeoman at War..

Close-up of the turret of a knocked-out Churchill III tank of ‘Kingforce’, 2 November 1942. The hole made by an 88mm shell which penetrated the turret front can be clearly seen. A Priest 105mm self-propelled gun of 1st Armoured Division is prepared for action, 2 November 1942. Matilda Scorpion flail tanks, 2 November 1942.

Understanding Russia

Stalingrad throws the multinational character of the Allied triumph during November 1942 into even starker relief. The blood price the Soviet Union paid both in that battle and during the war as a whole – and the toll they took on Hitler’s forces – compels us to reflect still further on just how much Britain’s national successes are achieved in partnership.

It also helps the difficult but necessary effort of comprehending Russia today. The fact that during World War II at least 11m Russian soldiers died along with millions more civilians, brings invaluable perspective to the nation’s ongoing fear of outside forces today. It helps explain the potency of Vladimir Putin’s image – cynically manufactured though it may be – as a strong shield against the outside world. If Western relations with the Russians are ever to be constructive, this needs recognised.

Only a few short years linked the victory at Stalingrad with the Red Army’s further emphatic successes as it pushed westward toward Berlin, followed by the descent of the Iron Curtain across Europe in 1946. This heralded that rigid division between East and West that lasted more than four decades before resuming, only slightly less rigidly, in recent years.

To contextualise the British and Allied successes of November 1942 in such ways is to acknowledge fundamental truths about present-day international affairs and how Britain, and the West more widely, might fare better.

Allied victory that month – and then winning the war in 1945 – was achieved by a painstakingly constructed multinational coalition from across Europe and the wider world in which the Russians and other nations were absolutely integral. Grasping this hard-won and invaluable achievement would benefit the cause of constructive and fruitful international cooperation now and for years to come.

Panzer Army Africa

(commanded by Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) Erwin Rommel) (Lieutenant-General (General der Panzertruppe) Georg Stumme was in command at the start of the battle in Rommel's absence on sick leave)

Army troops

German 90th Light Afrika Division

  • 155th Panzergrenadier Regiment (with 707th Heavy Infantry Gun Company)
  • 200th Panzergrenadier Regiment (with 708th Heavy Infantry Gun Company)
  • 346th Panzergrenadier Regiment (should be 361st, 346th assigned to 217th Inf Div, the 361st was formed in theatre from former French Foreign Legionnaires of German origin)
  • 190th Artillery Regiment
  • 190th Anti-tank Battalion
  • under command: Force 288 (Panzergrenadier Regiment Afrika, the three battalions listed after this are not part of this 8-to-10 company detachment)
    • 605th Anti-tank Battalion
    • 109th Anti-aircraft Battalion
    • 606th Anti-aircraft Battalion

    German 164th Light Afrika Division

    • 125th Infantry Regiment
    • 382nd Infantry Regiment
    • 433rd Infantry Regiment
    • 220th Artillery Regiment
    • 220th Engineer Battalion
    • 220th Cyclist Unit
    • 609th Anti-aircraft Battalion

    Ramcke Parachute Brigade

    • 1st Bn 2nd Parachute Regiment
    • 1st Bn 3rd Parachute Regiment
    • 2nd Bn 5th Parachute Regiment
    • Lehrbattalion Burkhardt
    • Parachute Artillery Battery
    • Parachute Anti-tank Battalion

    German Africa Corps

    German 15th Panzer Division

    (Brigadier-General (Generalmajor) Gustav von Vaerst)

    • 8th Panzer Regiment
    • 115th Panzergrenadier Regiment
    • 33rd Artillery Regiment
    • 33rd Anti-tank Battalion
    • 33rd Engineer Battalion

    German 21st Panzer Division

    (Brigadier-General (Generalmajor) Heinz von Randow)

    • 5th Panzer Regiment
    • 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment
    • 155th Artillery Regiment
    • 39th Anti-tank Battalion
    • 200th Engineer Battalion

    The Battle of El Alamein

    The Battle of El Alamein, fought in the deserts of North Africa, is seen as one of the decisive victories of World War Two. The Battle of El Alamein was primarily fought between two of the outstanding commanders of World War Two, Montgomery, who succeeded the dismissed Auchinleck, and Rommel. The Allied victory at El Alamein lead to the retreat of the Afrika Korps and the German surrender in North Africa in May 1943.

    Rommel studying maps during the battle at El Alamein

    El Alamein is 150 miles west of Cairo. By the summer of 1942, the Allies were in trouble throughout Europe. The attack on Russia – Operation Barbarossa – had pushed the Russians back U-boats were having a major effect on Britain in the Battle of the Atlantic and western Europe seemed to be fully in the control of the Germans.

    Hence the war in the desert of North Africa was pivotal. If the Afrika Korps got to the Suez Canal, the ability of the Allies to supply themselves would be severely dented. The only alternate supply route would be via South Africa – which was not only longer but a lot more dangerous due to the vagaries of the weather. The psychological blow of losing the Suez and losing in North Africa would have been incalculable – especially as this would have given Germany near enough free access to the oil in the Middle East.

    El Alamein was a last stand for the Allies in North Africa. To the north of this apparently unremarkable town was the Mediterranean Sea and to the south was the Qattara Depression. El Alamein was a bottleneck that ensures that Rommel could not use his favoured form of attack – sweeping into the enemy from the rear. Rommel was a well respected general in the ranks of the Allies. The Allied commander at the time, Claude Auchinleck – did not command the same respect among his own men. Auchinleck had to send a memo to all his senior officers that ordered them to do all in their power to correct this:

    “…(you must) dispel by all possible means the idea that Rommel represents anything other than the ordinary German general……….PS, I’m not jealous of Rommel.” Auchinleck

    In August 1942, Winston Churchill was desperate for a victory as he believed that morale was being sapped in Britain. Churchill, despite his status, faced the prospect of a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons if there was no forthcoming victory anywhere. Churchill grasped the bull by the horns./ he dismissed Auchinleck and replaced him with Bernard Montgomery. The men in the Allied forces respected ‘Monty’. He was described as “as quick as a ferret and about as likeable.” Montgomery put a great deal of emphasis on organisation and morale. He spoke to his troops and attempted to restore confidence in them. But above all else, he knew that he needed to hold El Alamein anyway possible.

    Rommel planned to hit the Allies in the south. Montgomery guessed that this would be the move of Rommel as Rommel had done it before. However, he was also helped by the people who worked at Bletchley Park who had got hold of Rommel’s battle plan and had deciphered it. Therefore ‘Monty’ knew not only Rommel’s plan but also the route of his supply lines. By August 1942, only 33% of what Rommel needed was getting through to him. Rommel was also acutely aware that while he was being starved of supplies, the Allies were getting vast amounts through as they still controlled the Suez and were predominant in the Mediterranean. To resolve what could only become a more difficult situation, Rommel decided to attack quickly even if he was not well-equipped.

    By the end of August 1942, Montgomery was ready himself. He knew that Rommel was very short of fuel and that the Germans could not sustain a long campaign. When Rommel attacked, Montgomery was asleep. When he was woken from his sleep to be told the news, it is said that he replied “excellent, excellent” and went back to sleep again.

    The Allies had placed a huge number of land mines south of El Alamein at Alam Halfa. German Panzer tanks were severely hit by these and the rest were held up and became sitting targets for Allied fighter planes that could easily pick off tank after tank. Rommel’s attack started badly and it seemed as if his Afrika Korps would be wiped out. He ordered his tanks north and he was then helped by nature. A sandstorm blew up which gave his tanks much needed cover from marauding British fighters. However, once the sandstorm cleared, Rommel’s force was hit by Allied bombers that pounded the area where the Afrika Corps had their tanks. Rommel had no choice but to retreat. He fully expected Montgomery’s Eighth Army to follow him as this was standard military procedure. However, ‘Monty’ failed to do this. He was not ready for an offensive and he ordered his men to stay put while they held a decisive defensive line.

    In fact, Montgomery was waiting for the arrival of something that soldiers in the desert were only allowed to refer to as ‘swallows’. In fact, they were Sherman tanks – 300 of them to assist the Allies. Their 75 mm gun shot a 6lb shell that could penetrate a Panzer at 2000 metres. The 300 ‘Monty’ had were invaluable.

    To cope with Montgomery’s attack, the Germans had 110,000 men and 500 tanks. A number of these tanks were poor Italian tanks and could not match the new Sherman’s. The Germans were also short of fuel. The Allies had more than 200,000 men and more than 1000 tanks. They were also armed with a six-pound artillery gun which was highly effective up to 1500 metres. Between the two armies was the ‘Devil’s Garden’. This was a mine field laid by the Germans which was 5 miles wide and littered with a huge number of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Going through such a defence would prove to be a nightmare for the Allies.

    To throw Rommel off the scent, Montgomery launched ‘Operation Bertram’. This plan was to convince Rommel that the full-might of the Eighth Army would be used in the south. Dummy tanks were erected in the region. A dummy pipeline was also built – slowly, so as to convince Rommel that the Allies were in no hurry to attack the Afrika Korps. ‘Monty’s army in the north also had to ‘disappear’. Tanks were covered so as to appear as non-threatening lorries. Bertram worked as Rommel became convinced that the attack would be in the south.

    At the start of the real attack, Montgomery sent a message to all the men in the Eighth Army:

    “Everyone must be imbued with the desire kill Germans, even the padres – one for weekdays and two on Sundays.”

    The start of the Allied attack on Rommel was code-named “Operation Lightfoot”. There was a reason for this. A diversionary attack in the south was meant to take in 50% of Rommel’s forces. The main attack in the north was to last – according to Montgomery – just one night. The infantry had to attack first. Many of the anti-tank mines would not be tripped by soldiers running over them – they were too light (hence the code-name). As the infantry attacked, engineers had to clear a path for the tanks coming up in the rear. Each stretch of land cleared of mines was to be 24 feet – just enough to get a tank through in single file. The engineers had to clear a five mile section through the ‘Devil’s Garden’. It was an awesome task and one that essentially failed. ‘Monty’ had a simple message for his troops on the eve of the battle:

    “All that is necessary is that each and every officer and men should enter this battle with the determination to see it through, to fight and kill, and finally to win. If we do this, there can be only one result – together, we will hit the enemy for six out of Africa.”

    The attack on Rommel’s lines started with over 800 artillery guns firing at the German lines. Legend has it that the noise was so great that the ears of the gunners bled. As the shells pounded the German lines, the infantry attacked. The engineers set about clearing mines. Their task was very dangerous as one mine was inter-connected with others via wires and if one mines was set off, many others could be. The stretch of cleared land for the tanks proved to be Montgomery’s Achilles heel. Just one non-moving tank could hold up all the tanks that were behind it. The ensuing traffic jams made the tanks easy targets for the German gunners using the feared 88 artillery gun. The plan to get the tanks through in one night failed. The infantry had also not got as far as Montgomery had planned. They had to dig in.

    The second night of the attack was also unsuccessful. ‘Monty’ blamed his chief of tanks, Lumsden. He was given a simple ultimatum – move forward – or be replaced by someone more energetic. But the rate of attrition of the Allied forces was taking its toll. Operation Lightfoot was called off and Montgomery, not Lumsden, withdrew his tanks. When he received the news, Churchill was furious as he believed that Montgomery was letting victory go.

    However, Rommel and the Afrika Korps had also been suffering. He only had 300 tanks left to the Allies 900+. ‘Monty’ next planned to make a move to the Mediterranean. Australian units attacked the Germans by the Mediterranean and Rommel had to move his tanks north to cover this. The Australians took many casualties but their attack was to change the course of the battle.

    Rommel became convinced that the main thrust of Montgomery’s attack would be near the Mediterranean and he moved a large amount of his Afrika Korps there. The Australians fought with ferocity – even Rommel commented on the “rivers of blood” in the region. However, the Australians had given Montgomery room to manoeuvre.

    He launched ‘Operation Supercharge’. This was a British and New Zealander infantry attack made south of where the Australians were fighting. Rommel was taken by surprise. 123 tanks of the 9th Armoured Brigade attacked the German lines. But a sandstorm once again saved Rommel. Many of the tanks got lost and they were easy for the German 88 gunners to pick off. 75% of the 9th Brigade was lost. But the overwhelming number of Allied tanks meant that more arrived to help out and it was these tanks that tipped the balance. Rommel put tank against tank – but his men were hopelessly outnumbered.

    By November 2nd 1942, Rommel knew that he was beaten. Hitler ordered the Afrika Korps to fight to the last but Rommel refused to carry out this order. On November 4th, Rommel started his retreat. 25,000 Germans and Italians had been killed or wounded in the battle and 13,000 Allied troops in the Eighth Army.

    The battle

    The Axis forces were once more in a critical supply situation. Lacking the fuel and mechanised forces to fight a mobile battle Rommel instead constructed strong defensive positions protected by deep minefields, which he nicknamed the ‘devil’s gardens’.

    Realising the strength of the Axis defences, Montgomery resisted the impatient pleas of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for an early attack. Instead he set about building up his forces, improving the morale and training of his troops, ensuring that he had superior numbers of men, tanks, guns and aircraft.

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    British infantry advance at El Alamein, 1942

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    A mine explodes close to a British artillery tractor as it advances through minefields at El Alamein, 1942

    The Battle of El Alamein, October 23-November 4, 1942

    British General Claude Auchinleck, hampered by the siphoning of his men and equipment to support the abortive Greek campaign, had lost all the British gains of 1941 to the fast-driving German General Erwin Rommel. In June 1942 Auchinleck had fallen back to the last line of defense before Alexandria: El Alamein was only 65 miles to the west, bounded by the Qattara Depression, terrain impassible to tanks. He was sacked and returned home.

    Rommel, following the British, hit the El Alamein line on July 1, 1942. The Afrika Korps was so far from their supply lines they could not make a serious attempt to break through. Rommel dug in, and created a defensive line of mines, antitank guns, tanks, and infantry.

    When Auchinleck”s replacement was killed, Churchill appointed Lieutenant General Bernard L. Montgomery to command the Eighth Army on August 12, 1942. He took command of a thoroughly exhausted army with low morale. He claimed El Alamein would be the decisive battle of the war.

    With characteristic deliberateness, Montgomery sought to rebuild the fighting spirit of the Eighth Army. Waiting for reinforcements, especially American tanks, Montgomery retrained his army for two months. British High Command and Churchill were growing impatient, and encouraged him to move. Montgomery took his time, as he would in France two years later.

    On October 23, 1942, Montgomery started Operation Lightfoot. Commonwealth Forces moved against Rommel”s line after four hours of artillery bombardment by 1,000 guns. Sappers crawled on their hands and knees, feeling for mines by hand to cut two corridors across the minefields for tanks.

    Little progress was made against the Afrika Korps. The plan was shifted to the south when Australians penetrated deep into German territory. Montgomery built up his forces there, and attacked on November 2. Rommel attacked with all his tanks, and lost heavily.

    Hitler told Rommel to stand and die in El Alamein, but he disobeyed orders and retreated on November 4. Four days later Americans began landing in North Africa, and the Afrika Korps was on the road to final defeat. Months of hard fighting were ahead for both sides.

    El Alamein was the last major battle in the war that was exclusively a Commonwealth affair. After that, the Americans would begin to contribute the major balance of men and materiel to the war.

    Infantry at El Alamein

    British infantry rushes an enemy strong point through the dust and smoke of enemy shell fire.

    British General Bernard Montgomery was thus forced to revise his plans, and the second phase of the battle, 'Dogfight', had to be fought within - rather than beyond - the fortified positions. This took place between 26 and 31 October, with Montgomery’s tactic of 'crumbling' away at the enemy defence positions with a series of limited attacks. At the same time, the British fended off German counter-attacks ordered by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

    The Second Battle of El-Alamein

    The British infantry assault at El-Alamein was launched at 10:00 pm on the night of October 23, 1942, after a furious 15-minute bombardment by more than 1,000 guns. German minefields proved a greater obstacle than had been initially reckoned, and when daylight came on October 24, British tanks were still transiting the paths that had been cleared by engineers. It was only on the second morning of the battle, after additional night attacks by the infantry, that four brigades of armour had succeeded in deploying 6 miles (10 km) beyond the original front. They had suffered much loss in the process of pushing through the constricted passages. The subsidiary British attack by the XIII Corps in the south had meanwhile met similar trouble and was abandoned. Nevertheless, the wedge that had been driven into the German defenses in the north looked so menacing that local defending commanders threw in their tanks piecemeal in efforts to stanch the British advance. That action fulfilled Montgomery’s calculation and enabled his armour, now established in good position, to inflict heavy losses on those spasmodic counterattacks. By the time Rommel had arrived in the evening of October 25, half of the defense’s effective tank force had been lost. The British resumed the attack the following day, but their attempt to push forward was checked, and their armour paid a heavy price for the abortive effort. The chance of developing the breach into a breakthrough had faded, and the massive British armoured wedge was embedded in a strong ring of German antitank guns. Montgomery deduced that his initial thrust had failed, that the breach was blocked, and that he must devise a fresh plan, while giving his main striking forces a rest.

    Montgomery’s new offensive, dubbed Operation Supercharge, opened on the night of October 28 with a northward thrust from the wedge toward the coast. His intention was to pinch off the enemy’s coastal pocket and then launch an exploiting drive westward along the coast road, toward Daba and Fūka. That offensive too became hung up in the minefield, and its prospects waned when Rommel opposed it with the veteran 90th Light Division. Rommel could not continue to parry such attacks indefinitely, however. Montgomery was losing four tanks for every one that he knocked out, but even at that rate of attrition, the British still held the advantage. The Afrika Korps had only 90 tanks left, while the Eighth Army had more than 800. As soon as he saw that his coastward thrust had miscarried, Montgomery decided to revert to his original line of advance, hoping to profit from the northward shift of the enemy’s scanty reserves. The new attack, begun in the early hours of November 2, again bogged down in the minefields, and resistance proved tougher than expected. The situation looked gloomy, but things were far worse for Rommel.

    By the end of the day on November 2, Rommel had depleted his resources almost completely. The core of his defense—the two Panzer divisions of the Afrika Korps—amounted to only 9,000 men at full strength, and combat had withered that number to little more than 2,000. Worse still, the Afrika Korps had barely 30 tanks fit for action, whereas the British could field more than 600. That night Rommel decided to fall back to Fūka in a two-step withdrawal. That redeployment was well in progress when, soon after midday on November 3, an overriding order came from Hitler, insisting that El-Alamein must be held at all costs. The turnabout doomed any chance that Rommel may have had of making an effective stand, as a resumption of the defense of El-Alamein was an exercise in futility. The 51st Highland and 4th Indian divisions were the core of an infantry attack on the night of November 3 that succeeded in piercing the joint between the Afrika Korps and the Italians. Soon after dawn on November 4, three armoured divisions passed through the opening thus created, with orders to swing northward and bar the enemy’s line of retreat along the coast road. Their exploiting drive was reinforced by the motorized New Zealand Division and a fourth armoured brigade.

    Watch the video: November 2nd 1942 - Axis forces clear out of El Alamein. HISTORY CALENDAR