El Alamein, Battle of
EL ALAMEIN, BATTLE OF.BIBLIOGRAPHY
El Alamein transformed British military fortunes in World War II and its victorious general took the name as part of his aristocratic title after the war. The settlement itself was an unremarkable railway halt short of the Libyan-Egyptian border and fifty miles west of Alexandria, with the extremely inhospitable, if not impassable, Qattara Depression lying forty miles to the south.
Prior to the October 1942 battle of El Alamein, the British Eighth Army had been consistently outperformed and out-maneuvered in North Africa by a German-Italian force known by the name of its German contingent, the Afrika Korps. In June 1942 the British-led Commonwealth army had been defeated at Al-Gazala by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, an outstanding armored commander whose skill, daring, and tempo on the battlefield outclassed his rivals. During the subsequent withdrawal eastward, the British lost the deepwater port of Tobruk, which had held out against all Axis attacks since April 1941 and had become a worldwide symbol of defiance to Germany. (A chance insult by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who called its defenders "the rats of Tobruk," led the Eighth Army to call itself the Desert Rats, an accolade its successor formations adopt to this day.)
General Sir Claude Auchinleck, commander-in-chief for the Middle East, retreated from Libya eastward to the Egyptian border, pausing at Matruh to buy time while defenses at the next choke point, El Alamein, could be prepared. The survival of British interests in the Middle East would depend on the successful defense of El Alamein, the final position before Alexandria that could not be outflanked, with the Qattara Depression an obstacle to the south and an ocean to the north. As Rommel harried the Eighth Army throughout its withdrawal, his lines of supply and communication grew ever more extended and vulnerable to air attack. His fuel supplies could only be sent by sea, where they were also vulnerable to both air and submarine attack. Most German supplies came through Tripoli, some 1,400 miles away. As a result, German formations arrived in the area too weak for a major engagement, whereas the British supply line was a mere fifty miles long: a two-hour drive to Alexandria.
Rommel, ever the cavalier with his logisticians, attempted to break through at El Alamein before he was ready, which Auchinleck first blocked and then countered with a series of assaults. At the battle of Tell el Eisa (10 July 1942), the British XXX Corps attempted to outflank the Germans from the northern end of the El Alamein Line. Although two divisions (the First South African and Ninth Australian) secured their immediate objectives, Rommel stalled them. Next, in the first battle of Ruweisat Ridge (14–16 July 1942), Gott's XIII Corps pounced on two Italian divisions, Brescia and Pavia, but German counterattacks successfully retook the positions. A second battle at Ruweisat (21–23 July 1942) was a night attack that, although initially successful, again was blocked by a German counterattack. In these battles, coordination and cooperation between Allied infantry and armor divisions was poorly rehearsed and both arms tended to blame each other for the failure.
In August 1942, with Rommel threatening to dine out in Alexandria, Churchill flew to Africa to see why his Eighth Army could make no progress. He reorganized the command structure, sacking generals and appointing Gott to replace Auchinleck as commander of the Eighth Army, fast becoming a demoralized and defeated force. However fate intervened and Gott's aircraft was shot down by Messerschmitts on 7 August, leading Churchill to appoint Bernard L. Montgomery to command the Eighth Army. Montgomery's arrival in the desert proved to be the beginning of a turnaround in the Allied fortunes. The changes—doctrinal, psychological, and physical—that he wrought in the Eighth Army in August and September 1942 are a model of how to transform a demoralized force of losers into a confident, capable, and winning team, and are studied by businesspeople as well as soldiers to this day. In two months, Montgomery, fresh from England with no desert experience, personally altered the outlook of his army. The results were quickly apparent. At the battle of Alam Halfa (30 August–7 September 1942), Rommel's next attack was blunted, but Montgomery was cautious and refused to counterattack and pursue, feeling that conditions were not yet overwhelmingly in his favor: German morale had not been dented and he needed more tanks, men, and time to build up combat supplies. Instead, firmly in command of a confident force that had tasted victory, Montgomery waited for his moment.
Against the strategic background of Operation Torch (the Anglo-American landings in North Africa planned for November 1942), Montgomery's moment arrived on the evening of 23 October 1942, when he attacked Rommel's 100,000 men and 500 tanks (half of which were Italian) with the Eighth Army's 230,000 men and 1,030 tanks, including 250 M4 Sherman tanks, deployed in combat for the first time. On the eve of combat Montgomery held a press conference and accurately predicted the course and duration of the battle. His assault, code-named Lightfoot, was choreographed in three phases. During the break-in, XIII Corps (under Horrocks, who followed Montgomery to Normandy) made a diversionary attack in the south while the XXX Corps (under Leese, who would eventually succeed Montgomery as army commander) attacked Rommel's center, which was heavily fortified and defended by minefields, but were unable to break through as hoped. The next phase, which Montgomery termed the dogfight, lasted from 26 to 31 October, when Rommel's defenses were systematically crumbled by attrition, characterized by overwhelming artillery firepower. German and Italian counterattacks were repulsed by close air support, coordinated by Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham (who also followed Montgomery to Normandy with the same formula), whose command post was positioned with Montgomery's.
The last phase, the breakout, commenced on 1 November. Using the reinforced New Zealand Division, Montgomery punched a hole through the weakened Axis lines and fed X Corps through the gap to roll up the Axis rear. Shattered by the tactical effect of ten days' attritional combat and with his own front disintegrating, Rommel withdrew, counterattacking constantly; the Afrika Korps was nevertheless unable to stem the tide: while the mechanized divisions managed to get away, the less mobile infantry and their supporting formations were left to their fate. By 4 November 1942 Rommel's Afrika Korps had been routed, but the Eighth Army's pursuit was far less certain, leading to criticisms (which were to resurface in Normandy) of Montgomery's excessive caution and inability to exploit operational opportunities with due speed. Days later, the Torch landings took place to the west in Morocco and Algeria, sandwiching Rommel in Tunisia, while on 23 January 1943 Montgomery reached the Axis main port of Tripoli.
Many historians feel that the battle of El Alamein was won by the code-breakers, deception, and the quartermasters. Although Montgomery did not know the exact details of the Axis defensive battle plan, Ultra decryptions from Bletchley Park (the British top-secret code breaking center) gave him Rommel's precise troop and tank strengths on the eve of battle. Ultra also enabled the British to track and sink vital German ammunition and fuel supplies in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile Rommel's own eyes and ears, the 621st Intelligence Company, had been overrun by an Australian battalion in the early fighting at Alamein on 10 July; they were irreplaceable, so the main battle started with a startling German ignorance of their enemy.
On the eve of battle, Allied tanks disguised as trucks assembled in the north; while inflatable armored vehicles, supported by dummy stores dumps and a fake water pipeline constructed from tins, fooled the Germans into thinking the attack would occur later and be launched from the south. Even the Eighth Army's mass batteries of artillery were disguised as trucks or expertly camouflaged, encouraging Rommel to fly to Europe for urgently needed rest and ensuring his absence for the first forty-eight hours of battle. In the final analysis, El Alamein showcased Allied materiel superiority for the first time while Rommel had stretched his logistics elastic to the maximum.
Barnett, Corelli. The Desert Generals. London, 1983.
Barr, Niall. Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein. London, 2004.
Bungay, Stephen. Alamein. London, 2002.
Latimer, Jon. Alamein. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.
McKee, Alexander. El Alamein: Ultra and the Three Battles. London, 1991.
El Alamein, battle of
R. A. C. Parker