Leading up to the Battle of al-Alamein
After a successful operation against the Italians, the British weakened in Egypt by the diversion of troops to Greece. Then, in March 1941 the newly-arrived Rommel counter-attacked and recaptured much of the lost territory in Libya and Egypt, though the important port of Tobruk, garrisoned by Australians, held out. In May a limited British offensive, code named Brevity, proved disappointing, and the large-scale offensive named Battleaxe the following month, saw the loss of 220 British tanks to only 25 German.
In July 1941 Sir Archibald Wavell, the Allied Commander in the Middle East, was replaced by General Sir Claude Auchinleck, and in November, the 8th Army at last mounted a successful offensive named Operation Crusader, which relieved Tobruk and pushed on to El Agheila.
But Rommel was not slow in striking back, first in an offensive which took him to a line just west of Tobruk and then, in a complex, swirling action between Gazala and the desert outpost of Bir Hacheim, in a battle which eventually saw the 8th Army in full retreat.
So Tobruk fell. Churchill called the loss 'one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war'. The British did not stop retreating until they reached a position covering the 30 miles of desert between the impassable Qattara depression and the coast, where the road and railway run through the little village of al-Alamein (el-Alamein, el-Alamein).
The Situation Prior to the Battle of al-Alamein
The Battle of al-Alamein, fought in the deserts of North Africa, is seen as one of the decisive victories of World War Two for the Allies. It was primarily fought between two of the outstanding commanders of World War II, Montgomery, who replaced Auchinleck, after the latter's lackluster performance, and Rommel. The Allied victory at al-Alamein lead to the retreat of the Afrika Korps and the German surrender in North Africa in May 1943.
Al-Alamein is located about 150 miles northwest of Cairo. By the summer of 1942, the Allies were in trouble throughout Europe. An attack on Russia named 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 limited. The only alternate supply route would be by way of 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 considering that Germany would have had almost unlimited access to the oil reserves of the Middle East.
Therefore, al-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. Al-Alamein was a bottleneck that forced Rommel away from his favored 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.
In August 1942, Winston Churchill was desperate for a victory as he believed that morale was being sapped from the Britain people. Churchill, despite his status, even faced the prospect of a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons if there were no forthcoming victories. He therefore fired Auchinleck and replaced him with Bernard Montgomery, who had much more respect from his men. "Monty" was described as "as quick as a ferret and about as likeable." But above all else, he knew that he needed to hold al-Alamein anyway possible.
Rommel planned to hit the Allies in the south. Montgomery guessed that this would be the Rommal's move. It was the same tactic that Rommel had used before in the first Battle of al-Alamein and he was also aided by British Intelligence who had got hold of Rommels battle plan and deciphered it. Therefore Monty knew not only Rommels 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 dominant 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.
However, by the end of August 1942, Montgomery was also ready for battle. He knew that Rommel was very short of fuel and that the Germans could not sustain a long campaign. Legend has it that when Rommal started his offensive, 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 al-Alamein at Alam Halfa. German Panzer tanks suffered considerable damage from these and the rest were held up and became sitting targets for Allied fighter planes that could easily pick off tank after tank. Rommels attack started badly and it seemed as if his Afrika Korps would be wiped out. But he ordered his tanks north and he was then helped out by nature. A sandstorm blew up which gave his tanks much needed cover from marauding British fighters. However, once the sandstorm cleared, Rommels forces were once pounded by Allied bombers. Rommel had no choice but to retreat. He fully expected Montgomerys Eighth Army to follow him as this was standard military procedure, but that was not to happen. Monty 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 300 Sherman. Their 75 mm gun shot a 6lb shell that could penetrate a Panzer at 2,000 meters. Montgomery also wanted to build up his forces to a point of overwhelming superiority.
To throw Rommel off the scent, Montgomery launched Operation Bertram. This plan was conceived to convince Rommel that the full might of the Eighth Army would be used in the south. Dummy tanks were erected in the south, and a dummy pipeline was also built, slowly, so as to convince Rommel that the Allies were in no hurry to attack the Afrika Korps. Montys army in the north also had to disappear. Tanks were covered and made to appear as non-threatening lorries. Bertram seems to have worked. Rommel became convinced that the attack would be in the south.
The Eighth Army vs Rommel
Prior to the events that led to al-Alamein, the British military force in Egypt since the Battle of Tell al-Kebir in 1882 had been known as the Army of the Nile. It was a relatively small force, but by World War II, it was very experienced in maneuvering in the desert terrain, had excellent British surveyor maps. They had long-term reconnaissance capabilities from both the Light Car Patrols of 1915-1918 and the newly formed Long Range Desert Group.
By the time of the Battle of al-Alamein, this force had been organized into the Eighth Army with a total of some 220,000 men, It had air superiority and its tank strength (about 1,000) outnumbered Rommels by two to one. They were also armed with a six-pound artillery gun which was highly effective up to 1500 meters.
These forces were organized into three corps, consisting of the 10th, the 13th and the 30th, which included Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Indians, Rhodesians, Americans, Greeks and Free French.
The 10th Corps was an armored division created in the Western Desert as Montgomery's answer to the Afrika Korps. During the Battle of al-Alamein, it was held back, while the 30th Corps breached the enemy line. Then the 10th was sent through the hole for the knockout punch. The 13th Corps was situated on the southern section of the al-Alamein line at Alam Nayal (Alam Nayil) and the Munassib Depression.
The 30th Corps was the workhorse of the 8th Army, and consisted of three dominion divisions. The 51st Highland Infantry Division were to bear the brunt of the attack across the al-Alamein line and led the infantry charge that created the breakthrough at al-Alamein. The 2nd New Zealand Division, the Kiwis, led by Major-General Bernard Freyberg, laid the groundwork for Operation Supercharge. The 9th Australian Division under General Leslie Morshead was considered the finest division in the 8th Army by its enemy. They had withstood the siege of Tobruk for eight months in 1941 and at al-Alamein they were hurled against the German gun line at Tell al-Aqaqir.
There was also the Libyan-Arab Corps. When the Italians entered World War II, the Sanusi leader Sayyid Idris, living in Egypt at the time, aligned himself with the British. Five battalions of soldiers joined the war in the Libyan Desert under the name of the Libyan-Arab Corps, four with the Eighth Army, and the fifth behind the lines in the desert, which they knew very well.
To cope with Montgomerys 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 Shermans. The Germans were also short of fuel.
The battlefield of al-Alamein is protected on the north by the sea and on the south by the Qattara Depression, thus making it a strong defensive position. Whoever controlled al-Alamein would also control the North African coast. In turn, they would also control Egypt and the trade routes to the Far East via the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The ancient Egyptians understood this, and so did their modern counterparts. During World War II, the Axis powers wanted to dominate Egypt in order to close Britain's sea routes to its colonial empire, which the British were desperate to protect. Beginning in 1940 with the Italian invasion of Egypt by way of Libya, the coastal towns of al-Diffa (the northern coast) were the scene of this ongoing battle.
Al-Alamein was the turning point of World War II. The British committed themselves, supplying their soldiers with ample equipment to secure the al-Alamein Line, the last tenable position before Cairo. Their victory convinced the Americans to enter the European war with an offensive called Operation Torch, which thrust into Morocco and Algeria.
The Battle Line
The two armies faced each other across an almost flat expanse of desert that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea in the north, south to the Qattara Depression. The 8th Army set up its defenses at the al-Alamein Line. The train station at Al-Alamein stood behind the British, and the small hamlet of Sidi Abd al-Rahman was in the midst of the Axis troops. The al-Alamein Line was fortified by a series of boxes enclosed by barbed wire and secured by minefields. There were ten boxes in all, each equipped with water piped from the Nile and stored in underground reservoirs near the railway at al-Alamein. Each contained two infantry battalions, and field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery. At intervals along the line were hospitals, storerooms and headquarters.
The first box of the al-Alamein Line was the al-Alamein Box. It extended from the sea to the west of the al-Alamein station and then south below the railroad. It was manned by the 1st South African Division. Qarat al-Abd, about 15 miles south of al-Alamein, held another box on the al-Alamein Line. It, like al-Alamein, was built on high ground. Ruweisat Ridge, a rocky hill 200 feet high was 12.5 miles south of al-Alamein and held the next box. The line continued south to the edge of the Qattara Depression.
Between the two armies was the Devils Garden. This was a mine field laid by the Germans which was five miles wide and littered with a huge number of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Going through such a defense would prove to be a nightmare for the Allies.
The Battle of Al-Alamein
Military historians usually divide the Battle of al-Alamein into five phases, consisting of the break-in (October 23-24), the crumbling (October 24-25), the counter (October 26-28), Operation Supercharge (November 1-2) and the breakout (November 3-7). No name is given to the period from October 29 to the 30th when the battle was at a standstill.
On a calm, clear evening under the bright sky of a full moon, Operation Lightfoot began with 882 field and medium sized guns releasing a barrage of fire that did not stop until five and a half hours later, when each gun had fired about 600 rounds. During that period of time, 125 tons of bombs fell on the enemy gun positions. Legend has it that the noise was so great that the ears of the gunners bled.
There was a reason for the name "Operation Lightfoot". The infantry had to attack first. Many of the anti-tank mines would not be tripped by soldiers running over them since 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 wide, which was just enough to get a tank through in single file. The engineers had to clear a five mile section through the Devils Garden. It was an awesome task and one that essentially failed because of the depth of the Axis minefields.
The Allied plan called for the 13th Corps to make a feint attack to the south, engaging the Axis 21st Panzer and Ariete Divisions (both tank divisions, while the 30th Corps in the north attempted to make the narrow pathway through the German minefield for the armored divisions of the 10th Corp.
At 10 pm, the infantry of the 30th Corps began to move. The objective was an imaginary line in the desert where the strongest enemy defenses were situated. Once the infantry reached the first minefields, the mine sweepers (sappers) moved in to create a passage for the tanks. Finally, at 2 am, the first of the 5,000 tanks crawled forward. By 4 am the lead tanks were in the minefields, where they stirred up so much dust that there was no visibility at all, and traffic jams developed as the tanks got bogged down. Entire columns went astray when the lead tank moved off course, and they were seldom exactly where they thought they were. In fact, on this night the tank units though that they were through the first minefield and into the second when they were in fact still in the first.
The morning of Saturday, October 24th brought disaster for the German headquarters. The accuracy of the barrage had destroyed German communications and Strumme, who commanded the German forces while Rommel was in Germany, died of a heart attack. Temporary command was given to General von Thoma.
Meanwhile, the 30th Corps had only dented the first minefields. It was not yet enough for the 10th Corps to pass through, so all day long, the British air force plastered Axis positions, making over 1,000 sorties.
The Panzers attacked the 51st Highland Division just after sunrise. By 4:00 pm there was little progress. At dusk, with the sun at their backs, Axis tanks from the 15th Panzer and Italian Littorio swung out from Kidney Ridge to engage the Australians, and the first major tank battle of al-Alamein was joined. Over 100 tanks were involved in this battle and by dark, half were destroyed while neither position was altered.
While the Australians were fighting the 15th Panzers, the Highlanders, on their left, were engaging in the first tank versus infantry battle at al-Alamein. It was to last for two days with many casualties, but when it was over the British manned Kidney Ridge.
D Plus 2: Sunday, October 25, 1942
The initial thrust had ended by Sunday. Both armies had been fighting non-stop for two days. The British had advanced through the minefields in the west to make a six mile wide and five mile deep inroad. They now sat atop Miteriya Ridge in the southeast, but at the same time, the Axis forces were firmly entrenched in most of their original battle positions and the battle was at a standstill. Hence, Montgomery ordered an end to conflict in the south, the evacuation of Miteriya Ridge, and a swing north toward the sea. The battlefield would be concentrated at the Kidney and Tell al-Eissa until a breakthrough occurred. It was to be a gruesome seven days.
By early morning, the Axis forces launched a series of attacks using the 15th Panzer and Littorio divisions. The Afrika Korps was probing for a weakness, but they found none. When the sun set, the British infantry went on the attack. Around midnight, the 51st Division launched three attacks, but no one knew exactly where they were. It was pandemonium and carnage, resulting in the loss of over 500 British troops, and leaving only one officer among the attacking forces.
While the 51st was operating around the Kidney, the Australians were attacking Point 29, a 20 foot high Axis artillery observation post southwest of Tell al-Essa. This was the new northern thrust Montgomery had devised earlier in the day, and it was to be the scene of heated battle for days to come. The 26th Australian Brigade attacked at midnight. The air force dropped 115 tons of bombs and the British took the position and 240 prisoners. Fighting continued in this area for the next week, as the Axis tried to recover the small hill that was so vital to their defense.
Counter: D Plus 3: Monday, October 26, 1942
Rommel returned to North Africa on the evening of the 25th, and immediately assessed the battle. What he found was that the Italian Trento Division had lost half of its infantry, the 164 Light Division had lost two battalions, most other groups were under strength, all men were on half rations, a large number were sick, and the entire Axis army had only enough fuel for three days.
The offensive was stalled. Churchill railed, "Is it really impossible to find a general who can win a battle?" A counterattack began at 3 pm against Point 29 near Tell al-Eissa. Rommel was determined to retake the position and moved all the tanks from around Kidney to the battle site. Air and ground power poured into the area as Rommel moved the 21st Panzer and Ariete Armored Division up from the south along the Rahman Track. That turned out to be a mistake. The British held the position and Rommel's troops could not retire for lack of fuel, and were therefore stuck on open ground at the mercy of air attacks.
However, back at Kidney, the British failed to take advantage of the missing tanks. Each time they tried to move forward they were stopped by pounding anti-tank guns.
On a brighter note for the British, the Royal Navy sank the tanker Proserpina at Tobruk, and it was the last hope for re-supplying Rommel's thirsty machines.
D Plus 4: Tuesday, October 27, 1942
By now, the main battle was concentrated around Tell al-Aqaqir and Kidney Ridge. The 2nd Battalion (Rifle Brigade) of the 1st Armored Division of the British was at a position called Snipe, to the southwest of the Kidney. The stand at Snipe is one of the legends of the Battle of al-Alamein. Phillips in Alamein records that,
"The desert was quivering with heat. The gun detachments and the platoons squatted in their pits and trenches, the sweat running in rivers down their dust-caked faces. There was a terrible stench. The flies swarmed in black clouds upon the dead bodies and excreta and tormented the wounded. The place was strewn with burning tanks and carriers, wrecked guns and vehicles, and over all drifted the smoke and the dust from bursting high explosives and from the blasts of guns."
Mortar and shell fire was constant all day long. Around 4 pm, British tanks accidentally opened fire against their own position, killing many. At 5 pm, Rommel launched his major attack. German and Italian tanks moved onward. With only four guns in operation, the 2nd Battalion was able to score continual broad-side hits against forty tanks of the 21st Division, knocking out thirty-seven of them. The remaining three withdrew and a new assault was lunched. All but nine tanks in this assault were also destroyed. The 2nd was down to three guns with three rounds each, but the Germans had given up on this assault.
D Plus 5-6: Wednesday, Thursday, October 28-29, 1942
The Australian 9th Division was to continue pushing northwest beyond Tell al-Eissa to an enemy held location south of the railway known as Thompson's Post and force a breakthrough along the coast road. By the end of the day, the British had 800 tanks still in operation, while the Axis had 148 German and 187 Italian tanks. With the tanker, Luisiano sunk outside Tobruk harbor, Rommel told his commanders, "It will be quite impossible for us to disengage from the enemy. There is no gasoline for such a maneuver. We have only one choice and that is to fight to the end at Alamein".
D Plus 7-9: Friday-Sunday, October 30 - November 1, 1942
The night of October 30th saw a continuation of previous plans, with the 9th Australian attacking. This was their third attempt to reach the paved road, which they took on this night. On the 31st, Rommel launched four retaliatory attacks against Thompson's Post. The fighting was intense and often hand to hand, but no ground was gained by the Axis forces. On Sunday, November 1, Rommel tried to dislodge the Australians once again, but the brutal, desperate fighting resulted in nothing but lost men and equipment. By now, it had become obvious to Rommel that the battle was lost. He began to plan the retreat and anticipated retiring to Fuka, a few miles west. Ironically, 1,200 tons of fuel arrived, but it was too late and had to be blown up.
This phase of the battle began on November 2nd at 1 am, with the objective of destroying enemy armor, forcing the enemy to fight in the open, diminishing the Axis petrol, attacking and occupying enemy supply routes and disintegrating the enemy army. Its intensity and the destruction was greater than anything witnessed so far during this horrific battle. The objective of Supercharge was Tell al-Aqaqir along the Rahman track, which was the base of the Axis defense.
This attack started with a seven hour aerial bombardment focused on Tell al-Aqaqir and Sidi Abd al-Rahman, followed by a 4.5 hour barrage of 360 guns firing 15,000 shells. The initial thrust of Supercharge was to be carried out by the battle scarred New Zealanders. The commander, Freyberg had tried to free them of this chore, as they were under strength and weary, but that was not to be, so on this cold November night with the moon on the wane, the New Zealanders moved out.
As dawn came on November 2nd, tank after tank was hit by the German 88 mm guns that kept firing through seven air attacks. The 9th never made it to their objective. In fact, they had 75 percent casualties and lost 102 of its 128 tanks. Nevertheless, they had breached the gun line and the 1st Armored Division of the 10th Corps, under the command of Raymond Briggs, was now about to be engaged. In the heat of the noon day sun, 120 Italian and German tanks advanced for the biggest, most critical and, to all intents and purposes, the final tank battle of al-Alamein, the Battle of Aqaqir Ridge.
This battle continued all day.
"The desert, quivering in the heat haze, became a scene that defies sober description. It can be discerned only as a confused arena clouded by the bursts of high explosives, darkened by the smoke of scores of burning tanks and trucks, lit by the flashes of innumerable guns, shot through by red, green and white tracers, shaken by heavy bombing from the air and deafened by the artillery of both sides."
Rommel called up Ariete from the south to join the defense around Tell al-Aqaqir in the last stand of the German army. By nightfall, the Axis had only thirty-two tanks operating along the entire front. While the Afrika Korps was fighting for its life at Aqaqir, Rommel began the withdrawal to Fuka.
The Break Out
Rommel sent a message to Hitler explaining his untenable position and seeking permission to withdraw, but Rommel was told to stand fast. Von Thoma told him, "I've just been around the battlefield. 15th Panzer's got ten tanks left, 21st Panzer only fourteen and Littorio seventeen." Rommel read him Hitler's message, so he left to take command at the head of the Afrika Korps.
When 150 British tanks came after the remaining members of the nearly vanquished 15th and 21st Panzers, von Thoma stood with his men. He was in the command tank at the spot where the two panzer units joined, and there he remained until the last tank was destroyed. At the end, when all was lost, von Thoma stood alone beside his burning tank at the spot that was to become known as the "panzer graveyard."
Despite the desperate situation, Rommel's men stood their ground. Entire units were destroyed, but the remnants continued to fight. A 12 mile wide hole had been cut in the Axis line. "If we stay put here, the army won't last three days... If I do obey the Fuhrer's order, then there's the danger that my own troops won't obey me... My men come first!" Rommel ordered the massive retreat against Hitler's orders.
D Plus 12, November 4, 1942
On November 4th, the final assaults were underway. The British 1st, 7th and 10th armored divisions passed through the German lines and were operating in the open desert. The British had won the battle. The axis were in retreat. This day saw the liquidation of the Italian Ariete Armored Division, the Littorio Division and the Trieste Motorized Division.
So far, Rommel had lost 55,000 men, 1,000 guns and 450 tanks. The British had 13,500 men killed, missing or wounded. They also lost 100 gun and 500 tanks. John Currie of the 9th Armored Brigade pointed to twelve tanks when asked where his regiments were, "There are my armored regiments". Major-General Douglas Wimberley swore, "Never again".