Saturday, December 8, 2007

For the Battle of Alam Halfa, which is also often termed the Second Battle of El Alamein, see Battle of Alam Halfa
The Second Battle of El Alamein marked a significant turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. The battle lasted from October 23 to November 5, 1942. Following the First Battle of El Alamein, which had stalled the Axis advance, General Bernard Montgomery took command of the British Empire's Eighth Army from Claude Auchinleck in August 1942.
Success in the battle turned the tide in the North African Campaign. Allied victory at El Alamein ended Axis hopes of occupying Egypt, controlling access to the Suez Canal, and gaining access to the Middle Eastern oil fields. The defeat at El Alamein marked the end of Axis expansion in Africa.

With Operation Lightfoot, Montgomery hoped to cut two corridors through the Axis minefields in the north. Armour would then pass through and defeat the German armour. Diversionary attacks in the south would keep the rest of the Axis forces from moving northwards. Montgomery expected a twelve-day battle in three stages: "The break-in, the dog-fight and the final break of the enemy."
For the first night of the offensive, Montgomery planned that four infantry divisions would advance to an objective codenamed the Oxalic Line, overrunning the forward Axis defences. Engineers would meanwhile clear and mark lanes through the minefields, through which the armoured divisions would pass to gain the Skinflint Report Line (where they would check and report their progress), and the Pierson Bound (where they would rally and temporarily consolidate their position) in the depths of the Axis defences.
The Commonwealth forces practised a number of deceptions in the months prior to the battle to wrong-foot the Axis command, not only as to the exact whereabouts of the forthcoming battle, but as to when the battle was likely to occur. This operation was codenamed Operation Bertram. In September, they dumped waste materials (discarded packing cases etc.) under camouflage nets in the northern sector, making them appear to be ammunition or ration dumps. The Axis naturally noticed these, but as no offensive action immediately followed and the "dumps" did not change in appearance over time, they subsequently ignored them. This allowed Eighth Army to build up supplies in the forward area unnoticed by the Axis, by replacing the rubbish with ammunition, petrol or rations at night. Meanwhile, a dummy pipeline was built, the construction of which would lead the Axis to believe the attack would occur much later than it in fact did, and much further south. To further the illusion, dummy tanks consisting of plywood frames placed over jeeps were constructed and deployed in the south. In a reverse feint, the tanks destined for battle in the north were disguised as supply lorries by placing removable plywood superstructures over them.

Allied plan
With the failure of the Axis offensive at Alam Halfa, the Axis forces were seriously depleted. The German and Italian armies were over-stretched and exhausted and were relying on captured Allied supplies and equipment. In August, Rommel still had an advantage in men and materials but this was quickly turning against him as no major reinforcements were being sent to him and the British Commonwealth forces were being massively re-supplied with men and materials from the United Kingdom, India, Australia, and some tanks and trucks from the USA. Rommel continued to request equipment and supplies but the main focus of the German war machine was on the Eastern Front and very limited supplies reached North Africa.
Rommel knew full well that the British Commonwealth Forces would soon be strong enough to launch an offensive against his army. His only hope now relied on the German forces fighting in the Battle of Stalingrad quickly defeating the Soviet forces and moving south through the Trans-Caucasus and threatening Persia (Iran) and the Middle East.
This would require large numbers of British Commonwealth forces to be sent from the Egyptian front to reinforce British forces in Persia, leading to the postponement of any British Commonwealth offensive against his Army.
Using this pause Rommel could urge the German High Command to reinforce his forces for the eventual link-up between his Afrika Korps and German armies battling their way through southern Russia enabling them to finally defeat the British and Commonwealth armies in North Africa and the Middle East.
In the meantime, his forces were dug-in and waiting for the eventual attack by the British Commonwealth forces or the defeat of the Soviet Army in Stalingrad. They had laid around half a million mines, mainly anti-tank, in what was called the Devil's gardens. (Many of these mines were of British origin, captured at Tobruk). Anti-personnel mines (such as the S-mine) were mixed with the anti-tank mines.
Rommel alternated German and Italian infantry formations in the forward lines. Rommel's reserves consisted of two German panzer divisions and one motor infantry division, and an Italian force of the same nominal size. Because the Allied deception measures had confused the Axis as to the point of attack, they had to be spread over the entire front. This would delay their concentration against any Allied attack, and also force them to use large amounts of fuel, which Rommel lacked.

Axis plan
The Battle of El Alamein is usually divided 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.

The battle
On a calm, clear evening under the bright sky of a full moon, Operation Lightfoot began with 882 field and medium guns firing a barrage that continued for five and a half hours, at the end of which each gun had fired about 600 rounds. During that period of time, 125 tons of shells 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 tanks through in single file. The engineers had to clear a five-mile route through the 'Devil's Garden'. It was a difficult task and one that essentially failed because of the depth of the Axis minefields.
The Allied plan called for the XIII Corps to make a feint attack to the south, engaging the German 21st Panzer Division and Italian Ariete Armoured Division which were both tank divisions, while XXX Corps in the north attempted to forge a narrow pathway through the German minefield for the armoured divisions of X Corps.
At 10 p.m., the infantry of XXX 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. At 2 a.m., the first of the 500 tanks crawled forward. By 4 a.m. 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.

Second Battle of El AlameinSecond Battle of El Alamein PHASE 1: The break-in
The morning of Saturday 24 October brought disaster for the German headquarters. The accuracy of the barrage destroyed German communications and Georg Stumme, who commanded the Axis forces while Rommel was in Germany, died of a heart attack. Temporary command was given to General Ritter von Thoma.
Meanwhile, XXX Corps had only dented the first minefields. Not enough of the minefields had been cleared to enable X Corps to pass through, so all day long the Allied Desert Air Force attacked Axis positions, making over 1,000 sorties.
Panzer units attacked the British 51st (Highland) Division just after sunrise, only to be stopped in their tracks. By 4:00 p.m. there was little progress. At dusk, with the sun at their backs, Axis tanks from the German 15th Panzer Division and Italian Littorio Division swung out from Kidney Ridge to engage the Australians, and the first major tank battle of El 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 Panzer, the Highlanders, on their left, were engaging in the first tank versus infantry battle at El Alamein. It was to last for two days with many casualties, but when it was over the Allies held 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 Allies 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, General Bernard 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 Tel 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 Allied infantry went on the attack. Around midnight, the 51st Division launched three attacks, but no one knew exactly where they were. Pandemonium and carnage ensued, resulting in the loss of over 500 Allied 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 Tel 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 Allies 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 defence.

PHASE 2: The crumbling
D Plus 3: Monday, October 26, 1942
Rommel returned to North Africa on the evening of the 25th, and immediately assessed the battle. He found 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 p.m. against Point 29 near Tel 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 Armoured 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 anti-tank guns.
On a brighter note for the British, Beaufort torpedo bombers of No.42/47 Squadron Royal Air Force sank the tanker Proserpina at Tobruk, which was the last hope for resupplying Rommel's thirsty machines.
D Plus 4: Tuesday, October 27, 1942
By now, the main battle was concentrated around Tel al-Aqaqir and Kidney Ridge. The 2nd Battalion of The Rifle Brigade, belonging to the British 1st Armoured Division, was at a position codenamed Snipe, to the southwest of the Kidney. The stand at Snipe is one of the legends of the Battle of El-Alamein. Phillips, in his 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 p.m., British tanks accidentally opened fire against their own position, killing many. At 5 p.m., Rommel launched his major attack. German and Italian tanks moved onward. With only four guns in operation, the Rifle Brigade was able to score continual broad-side hits against forty tanks of the 21st Panzer Division, knocking out thirty-seven of them. The remaining three withdrew and a new assault was launched. All but nine tanks in this assault were also destroyed. The Rifle Brigade 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 Tel 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 30 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.

PHASE 4: Operation Supercharge
Erwin 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 4, the final assaults were underway. The British 1st , 7th and 10th armoured divisions passed through the German lines and were operating in the open desert. The Allies had won the battle. The Axis were in retreat. This day saw the liquidation of the Ariete Division, the Littorio Division and the Trieste Motorised Division.
So far, Rommel had lost nearly 23,000 men and 1,000 tanks, and had only 80 working tanks left. The Allies also suffered heavy losses: 13,500 men were killed, missing or wounded.John Currie of the 9th Armoured Brigade pointed to twelve tanks when asked where his regiments were. "There are my armoured regiments". Major-General Douglas Wimberley swore, "Never again."

PHASE 5: The break-out
Montgomery had always envisioned the battle as being one of attrition, similar to those fought in the Great War and had correctly predicted both the length of the battle and the number of Allied casualties . Commonwealth artillery was superbly handled but armoured tactics displayed the cavalry mentality that repeatedly cost Allied forces dearly as they attacked in open country in mass formation with insufficient infantry and air support. Commonwealth air support was therefore of limited use, but contrasted with the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica who offered little or no support to ground forces, preferring to engage in air-to-air combat.
In the end the Allies' victory was all but total. El Alamein was the first great offensive against the Germans in which the Allies were victorious. Winston Churchill famously summed up the battle on 10 November 1942 with the words, "Now this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." It was Montgomery's greatest triumph; he took the title "Viscount Montgomery of Alamein" when he was raised to the peerage.
Rommel was driven directly all the way to the Tunisian highlands where his forces were supplied with men and materials after Hitler had learned of Operation Torch and the subsequent betrayal of the Vichy French government to the Allies. These supplies would have been very helpful during the Battle of El Alamein. Rommel now faced a war on two fronts with the Commonwealth forces pursuing him from the east and the British, French and Americans from the west. The prospect of a short campaign against the Axis forces was thwarted by the mistakes made by the inexperienced American forces and this ensured that the Tunisian Campaign would be a long, hard and costly engagement.

Analysis and aftermath
Rommel did not lose hope in Africa till the end of the Tunisia Campaign. Even so, El Alamein was a significant Allied victory and the most decisive with respect to closing of a war front. After three years the African theatre was cleared of Axis forces and the Allies could look northward to the Mediterranean.


Jon Latimer, Alamein, London: John Murray, 2002