Alamein. Eighty years on, the name has not lost its evocative power. Victory over the Axis armies in Egypt, between 23 October and 4 November 1942, was a turning point after three grim years of military reverses. In Churchill’s cautiously optimistic words to a war-weary British public, it was not ‘the beginning of the end’ but ‘perhaps, the end of the beginning’.
Far from an inevitable triumph, Alamein was a hard-fought battle, joined only when General Bernard Montgomery was satisfied that he had the edge in terms of men, armour and artillery. Familiar images from those 12 days of bitter fighting testify to the harsh conditions endured by soldiers on both sides: the intensive bombardment that lit up the night sky before the Allied advance began; Eighth Army infantrymen in steel helmets and shorts, pushing forward through thick smoke and dust with fixed bayonets; burnt-out Panzers studding the barren sands; lines of demoralised Axis soldiers herded into captivity.
What was it like to take part in this climactic confrontation, and what was its significance for the course of the Second World War?
Prelude to battle
It was not Montgomery but his ill-starred predecessor as commander of the Eighth Army, General Claude Auchinleck, who chose El Alamein as the place to make a stand. His forces halted the Germans and their Italian allies there in July 1942. Sixty miles west of Alexandria, it was bounded on the north by the Mediterranean and to the south by the Qattara Depression, a vast, low-lying area of cliffs and quicksand that was impassable to mechanised forces. Erwin Rommel’s mastery of mobile warfare was of limited use there, making an outflanking manoeuvre impossible to execute.
The importance of Alamein, and of the wider Middle Eastern campaign, needs to be understood. Defeat would have given the Germans access to Egypt, with its vital reserves of oil. It would have threatened British control of the Suez Canal, an indispensable lifeline to the East, forcing ships to take the much longer and more dangerous alternative route around southern Africa. It was not the sideshow depicted by some revisionist historians.
The defensive-minded Auchinleck was arguably ill-treated by a prime minister impatient for a decisive outcome in the Western Desert. Sacked by Churchill as Eighth Army commander in August 1942, he departed for India, a disappointed man. Yet, initially, his replacement was no less resistant to demands for action from London. Montgomery refused to take on the enemy until he had not only built up the morale of his army, proclaiming that he would ‘hit Rommel for six out of Africa’, but had also received the material resources he needed.
The balance of forces
British and Commonwealth troops faced an enemy heavily entrenched behind a five-mile- deep network of minefields, known as ‘the devil’s gardens’ to their creators. The Germans had reverted to a ‘defence in depth’ approach, not unlike the strategy they had used on the Western Front in 1917. Round Teller anti-tank mines would detonate if a vehicle passed over them.
They were surrounded by anti-personnel S-mines, consisting of canisters packed with ball bearings, which exploded at waist height. The defences were completed by an array of anti-tank weaponry, with armoured divisions in reserve that could be moved along the front as required.
Yet Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika faced serious disadvantages, not least because they were seriously outnumbered. On the eve of battle, Montgomery headed a force of some 195,000 men, with 2,300 guns and more than 1,000 tanks. Axis forces in North Africa had taken second place to the high command’s focus on the war against the Soviet Union. Rommel had 108,000 soldiers, 1,500 guns and almost 550 tanks at his disposal.
Quality as well as quantity was an issue. More than half of the Axis tanks were inferior Italian models. Roughly a third of Montgomery’s armour consisted of Mark 4 Shermans, whose 75mm guns could match all the opposing tanks apart from a handful of upgraded Panzer IVs. Italian infantry, who accounted for over half the Axis numbers, were less effective fighters than their Afrika Korps counterparts.
The fundamental weakness of the Axis side was one of resources. The German and Italian forces were at the end of a long and vulnerable supply chain stretching across the Mediterranean. The sinking of ships bringing fuel and other essential resources – seven out of 30 ships were lost in August 1942 alone – was a major problem for the beleaguered invading army. Alamein was in any case dangerously far from the ports of Tripoli and Benghazi, through which Axis supplies were funnelled to the army.
The Allies also possessed air superiority thanks to the efforts of the Western Desert Air Force. Its commander, Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham, created a joint headquarters tasked with giving the army the battlefield support it needed. Offering, in his vivid phrase, ‘a combination of shield and punch’, Hawker Hurricane and Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk fighter-bombers carried out relentless raids on airfields, lines of communication, and ground forces.
This meant that the German and Italian air forces played a very limited role at Alamein. As Rommel ruefully observed, ‘Anyone who has to fight, even with the most modern weapons, against an enemy in complete command of the air fights like a savage against modern European troops, with the same chances of success.’
Launching the assault
The meticulously planned Allied operation hinged on a principal assault in the north, where the four divisions of 30th Corps were to punch a hole in the enemy defences, creating a gap through which the armour of 10th Corps would pass. The objective was to draw the Panzers into a counter-attack and destroy them. A diversionary attack would be made by 13th Corps on the southern flank, where they would hold a proportion of the Axis armour.
The operation was supported by a remarkable work of deception, entailing fake tanks made of painted plywood, concentrated in the south to give the impression that the main thrust would come from there. An incomplete water pipeline, fashioned from thousands of tin cans, completed the illusion.
On the eve of the battle, Eighth Army was an effective and well-trained fighting force, which had been honed by long experience of desert warfare. Montgomery provided the indispensable overall framework for Alamein but his corps and divisional commanders were actively involved in working out the details. It was a collaborative effort in which all the participants knew what was expected of them. Alamein was also a genuinely international effort, with Australian, New Zealand, South African, Indian and Free French troops fighting alongside the British.
With his preparations made, Montgomery unleashed his offensive under cover of darkness late on 23 October. Operation Lightfoot began with a relentless bombardment of enemy positions, focusing initially on Axis artillery batteries. Intelligence officer George Greenfield recalled the tremendous sound of more than 800 guns firing along the front ‘like gigantic drumbeats merging into one great blast of noise’. Searchlight beams were used to direct the advancing infantry as there were few landmarks in the desert.
Losses were heavy, with soldiers hit by mortar bombs and machine-gun fire as the defenders recovered from the initial shock. As the British troops moved up towards the minefields, they were greeted by signs of appalling carnage. Some went forward in Bren-gun carriers, whose thin skins proved vulnerable to heavy ordnance or were ripped apart by undetected mines. Others were caught by lethal booby traps. An Argyll regiment officer later recalled instinctively jumping a single strand of wire, but behind him, a sergeant who pulled it down to step over was blown to pieces.
Engineers carved narrow corridors through the minefields, along which the tanks would move. Mine-clearing was a dangerous task for the sappers, who had to walk upright whilst sweeping the ground in front. They were assisted by ingenious – though less effective – devices such as the Scorpion, a converted Matilda tank equipped with a revolving drum carrying mine-sweeping chains.
The pace was slow, as each channel was wide enough for just one tank at a time, and the vehicles were ordered to move forward at intervals in case the enemy counter-attacked from the air. The routes were badly congested, the way frequently blocked by stricken vehicles.
Montgomery showed flexibility, altering his plans on 25 October to incorporate a new northward thrust towards the coast by 30th Corps. Meanwhile Rommel, who had been on leave in Germany, returned to resume control of the army after his stand-in, General Stumme, died suddenly in the early stages of the battle. The ‘Desert Fox’ quickly grasped that the main assault was in the north and moved his Panzers, harassed continually from the air, in a bid to head off the attack.
The central action of the engagement was a battle of attrition referred to as ‘crumbling’ by Montgomery. In brutal close-quarter fighting, British and Commonwealth troops established a front line from where they strove to wear down the enemy. They had to contend with relentless counter-attacks as the Germans’ feared 88mm anti-tank guns scored numerous hits on the slow-moving Allied armour.
These guns were particularly hard to combat as they were dug in, with only their barrels showing above the desert floor. But the balance of forces began to tell. By 30 October, the Panzerarmee was down to 320 operational tanks, and was running short of fuel, whilst Montgomery could call on some 800 tanks.
One of the most outstanding actions took place three days into the battle, close to a location known for its shape as Kidney Ridge. At a depression in the landscape codenamed Snipe, soldiers of the 2nd Rifle Brigade held an outpost designated as a suitable anchor point for the advancing British tanks. They held off the relentless counter-attacks – and survived ‘friendly fire’ by Shermans and artillery crews who mistook them for Germans – whilst knocking out between 52 and 57 Axis vehicles.
The game-changing weapon at Outpost Snipe, introduced for the first time that year, was the six-pounder anti-tank gun. Its armour-piercing rounds proved deadly against the majority of enemy tanks at a range of 2,000 yards. At a cost of 72 casualties, the Rifle Brigade had thwarted the largest Axis counter-attack against 30th Corps’ advance. Rommel drew the lesson that an armoured assault against anti-tank guns, dug in on a well-chosen position, was unlikely to succeed.
This remarkable defensive action was recognised by the award of a Victoria Cross to the brigade commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Turner. (Sergeant Charles Calistan, who personally knocked out nine tanks and rescued a wounded soldier under enemy fire, inexplicably received a lesser award, the Distinguished Conduct Medal.)
Despite the punishment they experienced, the British and Commonwealth units held their nerve. On the night of 1/2 November, they regrouped for the final phase of the battle, codenamed Operation Supercharge. The target was the Axis base at Tel el Aqqaqir, three miles north-west of Kidney Ridge. After an opening air and artillery bombardment, 9th Armoured Brigade launched a frontal assault on the weakened Axis lines. They took heavy losses and soon the battlefield was littered with burning tanks.
‘For hours on end,’ in the words of the historian of the 9th Lancers, ‘the whack of armour-piercing shot on armour plate was unceasing.’ The 90th Division war diary vividly evoked the intensity of the fighting, as ‘visibility became so bad that the general picture was of one immense cloud of smoke and dust’.
British and New Zealand troops attacked the enemy positions, whilst armoured cars disrupted the lines of communication in the Axis rear. Nevertheless, in the face of determined resistance, Operation Supercharge did not achieve the intended rapid breakthrough. The critical factor in the end was the exhaustion of the enemy’s resources. By this stage, Rommel had fewer than 50 tanks in working order, and his fuel reserves were severely depleted, whereas Montgomery still had more than ten times that figure. All but 24 of the Germans’ 88mm guns had been knocked out. The rate of attrition had now reached an obviously unsustainable level.
Bowing to the inevitable, late on 2 November Rommel sought approval from Hitler for his decision to withdraw. In response, the Führer ordered him to stand fast, telling him to offer his men ‘no path but victory or death’. Hitler had shown an almost total ignorance of the realities of desert warfare. Now he was seemingly prepared to sentence his surviving troops to almost certain death.
On 4 November, however, the stand-fast order was grudgingly rescinded. The reality was that Rommel’s troops were already moving back towards the Libyan border. In retreat, their ranks were further decimated by repeated aerial attacks along the congested coastal route.
Aftermath and legacy
Alamein demonstrated that British and Commonwealth leadership, tactics and fighting spirit were the equal of the battle-hardened Afrika Korps. It clearly demonstrated the worth of the British contribution to the alliance, days before the start of the American-led Operation Torch landings in Algeria and Morocco.
The victory also indirectly secured the future of Malta, which had suffered an Axis air barrage for more than two years, by enabling the recapture of Tobruk and the Martuba airfields in Libya. This provided a vital forward base from which the RAF could defend a critical convoy due to leave for the embattled island on 16 November.
Victory was, of course, achieved at a price, but for the British and Commonwealth forces, the losses were much more bearable than for their opponents. Eighth Army suffered 13,500 casualties – about 8 per cent of their total strength. Estimates of Axis losses vary but may have been as high as 37,000 men killed or wounded – a remarkable 30 per cent of their total forces.
A further 30,000 were taken prisoner. Two-thirds of these were Italians, laid low by hunger and thirst, whose retreat was hampered by a lack of transport. Among the captives were three Italian generals and the Afrika Korps commander, General Wilhelm von Thoma.
Montgomery can be faulted for his conduct in the aftermath of the battle. The slow pursuit allowed the faster-moving German motorised troops to escape. This was partly due to lack of readiness for this final phase of the battle, but also the result of heavy rains, which hampered Eighth Army’s progress.
But it was a shattered Panzerarmee that now attempted, in a last throw of the dice, to stage a desperate rear-guard defence in Tunisia. The remainder of the Axis forces eventually surrendered in May 1943, bringing to an end Nazi Germany’s hope of winning dominance in North Africa.
Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that Alamein was the decisive moment in the Western Desert. The British public’s morale was lifted by a victory whose significance they instinctively grasped. For the first time since the spring of 1940, church bells rang out over the country in celebration. Until then they had been silenced, to be rung only if needed to warn of an enemy invasion.
The following year, the battle was celebrated in the film Desert Victory (see War on Film, MHM May 2016), widely regarded as one of the war’s finest documentaries. Alamein also made Montgomery’s reputation. He was promoted to full general and knighted in honour of his achievement. Aided by his well-known flair for self-publicity, he went on to head major commands in Sicily and north-west Europe.
The protracted desert campaign had been an arduous learning curve, which had eventually brought success. Alamein had clearly demonstrated the power of infantry and armour, supported by concentrated artillery fire. It also pointed to valuable lessons in army-air cooperation, which would be perfected in the Normandy campaign. Eighth Army learned from its earlier reverses much more than the Panzerarmee did from its initial successes. The outcome underlined the importance of careful advance planning and preparation.
Perhaps above all, for both sides, the battle showed beyond doubt that logistics play a decisive role in modern warfare. Victory went to the side that not only possessed battlefield skills of a high order, but that also had the ability to maintain a flow of vital supplies in extraordinarily challenging conditions.
The Nazi war machine’s inability to do so proved its undoing, not only in North Africa but elsewhere in Hitler’s overstretched empire.
The ‘Desert Fox’, Erwin Rommel (1891-1944)
With experience of leading an armoured unit in the invasion of France, Rommel was one of Hitler’s most able generals. The Nazi propaganda machine built up his image as the ‘people’s marshal’ but he also earned the respect of his adversaries after taking up the North African command early in 1941. At the start of the Second Battle of El Alamein, Rommel was in Germany, convalescing after a bout of ill-health. He returned on 25 October 1942, following his successor’s sudden death from a heart attack, to superintend the fight back. Despite his best efforts, a crippling lack of supplies undermined his chances of success. Recalled in March 1943, he was given responsibility for the defence of the French coast against a possible Allied invasion. Rommel was forced to take his own life in October 1944 after being indirectly implicated in the army bomb plot against Hitler.
Graham Goodlad teaches History and Politics at Portsmouth High School and is a regular contributor to MHM.
Niall Barr, Pendulum of War: the three battles of El Alamein (Overlook Press, 2004).
John Bierman and Colin Smith, War Without Hate: the Desert Campaign of 1940-1943 (Penguin, 2003).
All Images: WIPL unless otherwise stated.