In the summer of 1942, the British 8th Army was in a crisis. After being defeated at the Battle of Gazala, Erwin Rommel’s Panzer Army Africa had them on the run. If the rout could not be stopped soon, then the Suez Canal could be under threat.
The British theatre commander Claude Auchinleck decided to take command for himself. But instead of falling back to established defensive lines at Mersa Matruh, he moved 8th Army to a new line near a small railway halt called El Alamein flanked by a feature called the Qattara depression. Thanks in part to the bottleneck, they were finally able to halt the German advance during the First Battle of El Alamein. As both sides licked their wounds, the Allies began to plan their inevitable counter-attack.
The coming battle would become one of the most famous of the Second World War, an old-school infantry slog through deadly minefields more akin to the First World War than the Second. A battle which would prove the tide of the war had truly turned in the Allies' favour. This is the story of the Second Battle of El Alamein.
Rommel's biggest defeat
In the summer of 1942 British 8th Army was in a crisis. After being defeated at the Battle of Gazala Erwin Rommel's Panzer Army Africa had them on the run. If the rout could not be stopped soon then the Suez Canal and even the Persian oil fields could be under threat.
The British theatre commander Claude Auchinleck decided to take command for himself, but instead of falling back to establish defensive lines at Mersa Matruh he moved 8th Army to a new line near a small railway halt called El Alamein flanked by a feature called the Qattara Depression.
The Qattara Depression was a low-lying salt marsh area which would prevent the passage of heavy armour and most vehicles. By having that on the southern flank and the Mediterranean on the northern flank there was a bottleneck of 40 miles in which the Italian and German ability to manoeuvre was severely limited.
Thanks in part to the bottleneck they were finally able to halt the German advance during the First Battle of El Alamein and as both sides licked their wounds 8th Army began to plan for their inevitable counter-attack. That battle would become one of the most famous of the Second World War. An old-school infantry slog through deadly minefields more akin to the First World War than the second. A battle which would prove the tide of the war had truly turned in the Allies favour. This is the story of the Second Battle of El Alamein.
By the second half of 1942 Axis forces in North Africa were not in a good way. The overall German priority was the ongoing Battle of Stalingrad. Only once the city fell would Panzer Army Africa receive more support. Worse, the supplies they were assigned had to be brought across the contested Mediterranean sea and then driven all the way around the coast to the front lines. Soon the situation began to take its toll.
Petrol, oil, lubricants, food, and most crucially water. All this had to be brought distances as great as from Warsaw to Moscow. There was also the problem of Malta. The island of Malta had still not been captured and was still a thorn in the side of supplies to the Axis forces. That meant that there were never adequate resources for all the ambitions that the commanders had whether in attack or defence.
While the Axis forces were stretched to their limits, 8th Army received a new commander in the form of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He also brought with him new reinforcements which would threaten to tip the scales in favour of the Allies. Knowing this, Rommel attempted one final attack to reach Alexandria before the reinforcements arrived. But his exhausted troops were beaten back during the Battle of Alam El Halfa. The stage was now set for a counter-attack.
But instead of moving straight away, Montgomery chose to continue methodically building up his forces. Over the next few months, 8th Army became a force to be reckoned with. Alongside the British troops there were Indians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Australians, Greeks, and Rhodesians all preparing for the offensive.
As well as supplies arriving from Britain and the Indian subcontinent, weaponry was also now starting to come from the United States. Tanks like this one the M3 Grant were early in the desert from 1942 and were beginning to have an effect. The crucial weapons were tanks like the Sherman which would start to tip the balance irrevocably against the heavier German armour. By the eve of battle, the Allied forces had a significant advantage over their Axis opponents.
As the British and Commonwealth forces continue to grow, the Axis forces dug in. Without the men or materiel to fight a battle of manoeuvre Rommel took advantage of the defensive terrain which had been so helpful to 8th Army. He created what were referred to as "Devil's gardens". Millions of mostly anti-tank mines were sewn with anti-personnel mines in between. The minefields stretched up to a depth of 9,000 feet and were also covered by barbed wire trenches and anti-tank guns. He placed German and Italian infantry in the front line to contain any attacks and an armoured reserve in the rear who would prevent a breakthrough. However, due to a lack of fuel once the armour had been deployed it could not be redeployed.
In September Rommel was then forced to return to Germany due to ill health and his deputy Georg Stumme took over. Still the defences were a formidable obstacle and before Montgomery could attack he had to train his inexperienced men in night fighting and mine clearance and convince them that they were up to the task.
We're standing now in what became Montgomery's command caravan at the time of Alamein. It was a caravan captured from an Italian general earlier in 1942 and Montgomery found it useful as both an office and a place in which he could catch a little rest. At first sight, with his white knobbly knees showing under his shorts he was clearly an eccentric and the men of the army were not convinced by his words. However, as events were to prove, Montgomery clearly understood the importance of morale and as time went on and he met more and more of those under his command he passed on to them a supreme confidence in the possibility of victory and by the end everyone believed that this was the great chance.
Montgomery had a clear plan to achieve victory, primarily based on his overwhelming superiority in firepower and numbers. XIII Corps would make a faint attack in the south while XXX Corps would make the main attack in the north, breaking into the Axis defences and clearing a path through the minefields. The tanks of X Corps would then advance through the gap. This would then force Rommel to deploy his armoured reserve, which would break itself attacking the British and Commonwealth tanks. Meanwhile, the Axis infantry could also be destroyed.
The battle would be preceded by a deception operation to obscure the timing and location of the main assault. Dummy tanks and guns were built up in the south while real tanks in the north were made to look like trucks. And Montgomery had even more up his sleeve.
In the first part of 1942, the Germans and Italians had a great advantage in that they were able to read the messages being sent by an American diplomat in Cairo that described 8th Army's strength, dispositions, and so on. However, when that source was closed off in June 1942 from that point forward the balance of intelligence power swung in favor of the Allies. It was from Ultra in particular that Montgomery learned of the state of the German and Italian forces and particularly about their supply difficulties. This would be crucial information in fighting the forthcoming battle.
On the night of the 23rd of October, the Second Battle of El Alamein began.
The sky was lit up by a massive barrage intended to soften up the Axis positions. It was so loud that it was heard 60 miles away in Alexandria. Next the engineers went forward to clear the minefields.
This was difficult and dangerous work. The minefields proved to be much deeper than had been expected. It meant that the infantry, with supporting armour like this Valentine, had to spend longer under the shot and shell of German and Italian artillery fire than had been planned. However the Valentine, with its heavier armour and lower profile, was better equipped to do that than many of the other Allied tanks. Still, losses remained high in both men and machines.
The attack was beginning to stall. But Montgomery ordered his men to continue pushing. The next morning then brought some good news. Whilst travelling to the front line, Rommel's deputy Georg Stumme had come under fire and died from a heart attack. Rommel was already on his way back to North Africa to take command.
That evening also saw the first major tank engagement of the battle as the 15th Panzer Division moved to counter the 1st Armoured Division who were finally beginning to break through the minefields. Meanwhile, the 21st Panzer Division stopped another British breakthrough in the south. Montgomery had successfully drawn in the German tanks, but his armour was still bogged down trying to reach the front.
As time went on it became clear that the original battle plan was not working. Something had to change. At this point it was decided that a single attack concentrated at a weak point where the German and Italian forces met would have the greatest chance of success if properly resourced and properly planned. In the meantime, Australian forces close to the coast would make a series of diversionary attacks which would keep the Axis forces occupied.
On the 25th those new attacks began. In fierce fighting, the Australians were able to capture Point 29, an important hill in the area. However, upon his return, Rommel immediately ordered a counter-attack which stopped their advance. Fighting for the point would continue for the next week. Meanwhile heavy losses among Greek troops in the south forced operations there to be ceased for the time being.
By the 26th XXX Corps finally had a bridgehead through the minefields, capturing a key position known as Kidney Ridge. Montgomery was now starting to grind down the Axis forces, but his attack had lost all momentum. It was now that Rommel decided to counter-attack.
The next day he brought the 21st Panzer Division around from the south. However determined fire from anti-tank batteries near the Kidney Ridge position forced them to give up. He planned to send in another attack the following day, but his forces were broken up on the ground by Allied air power.
The Desert Air Force aircraft were equipped as fighter bombers so that they could tackle forces on the ground using bombs and cannon. It stood in stark contrast to the tactics of the Luftwaffe and the Italian Air Force in that they were more committed to shooting down their opponents than to supporting the ground battle. This meant that at crucial points in the ground battle, the Allies could call upon air support to resolve the problems on the battlefield.
The 28th and 29th of October saw further attacks from Australian units by the coast, but these were foiled by the arrival of the German 90th Light Division who moved in from reserve. That move meant that all the German armour was now concentrated to the north of the Kidney Ridge position. Rommel's infantry were now exposed. To keep things that way Australian attacks were continued for the next few days while Montgomery prepared to strike the killing blow - Operation Supercharge.
In the early morning of the 2nd of November, Operation Supercharge began. British and New Zealand infantry were sent north towards the main Axis base at El Aqqaqir where they would open a gap for X Corps tanks to steam through. It would be the most intense fighting of the battle so far.
In fighting that resembled attacks on the western front in the First World War, infantry advanced behind a slow-moving creeping barrage which provided the protection they needed before they went into the enemy positions to kill or capture their opposite numbers. This was slow attritional fighting and the casualties were mounting up. Nevertheless, ultimately the Allied numerical superiority meant that they were able to break through.
A massive tank battle now ensued as X Corps moved clear of the mines. The Germans and Italians put up a strong defence, inflicting many times their own numbers of casualties on the British and Commonwealth forces. But in the face of overwhelming odds, Rommel knew that he had to retreat. Despite orders from Hitler not to do so, Rommel sent in his last reserve of Italian armour to cover his escape.
Despite their best endeavors the Italian armour was not able to stem the tide of the advance and suffered hugely in the process to the point of destruction. As the motorized and armoured German units withdrew, this left the Italian infantry who had no means to escape. And this provides one of the lasting images of the end of the Alamein battle. The sight of lines of Italian infantry waiting to be rounded up and taken back into prisoner of war camps.
With the Axis forces now on the run, the exhausted 8th Army attempted to chase them down, but they simply had nothing left to give. When heavy rains arrived on November the 6th the pursuit bogged down and the Second Battle of El Alamein came to an end.
The victory at El Alamein appeared to be a major turning point in the Second World War. Winston Churchill ordered bells to be rung out across Britain for the first time in years saying "Before Alamein we never had a victory, after Alamein we never had a defeat". The battle was a costly one for both sides, but Allied superiority had eventually told.
Ultimately victory at Alamein was achieved by the force which had the greater material strength, better logistics and supplies, and was more skilled in terms of the tactics that it needed to achieve its goals in the battle. Much of this could be attributed to Montgomery who had set the agenda for how the battle should be fought.
A few days later Allied forces would land in French Morocco and Algeria with American troops taking part in the war in the west for the first time. 8th Army would continue to pursue Rommel further up the coast, forcing him to fight on two fronts. But the battle for Tunisia would not be an easy one.