While the name El Alamein is well known as a major battle between Montgomery and Rommel in North Africa, it actually stands for a series of operations during 1942 (July – November). The main peaks of the conflict are referred to as the First Battle of El Alamein in July and the Second Battle of El Alamein by the end of October. While the Axis had the upper hand up until this point in Africa, pushing back the allied forces all the way to Egypt, Rommel had problems of his own. They were outnumbered about two to one, his troops exhausted and his supply lines extremely stretched and under constant attack by the Desert Air Force (DAF). He also could not hope for larger reinforcements from the mainland as Operation Barbarossa was going full steam ahead, and most of the German forces were bogged down with the Russian Campaign.
El Alamein itself is a rather unremarkable train station on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, just 150 miles from Cairo. The reason why the Allied forces did choose it as their last line of defense before the very important Suez Canal, is because the area is basically a bottleneck between the Mediterranean Sea and the impenetrable Quattra Depression. This made it impossible for Rommel to outmaneuver the British forces, as he so often did before. As both sides were forced to dig themselves in, the result was an escalating stalemate with trenches, fortified positions and massive minefields between Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the British Imperial Eight Army, consisting of British, Indian, South African, Australian and New Zealand forces.
First Battle of El Alamein
The battle started beginning of July when Rommel’s armored forces engaged the Eight Army (at the time lead by the unpopular Auchinleck), opening several fronts. They did try to break through for days, but the superior numbers and the relentless artillery and air attacks by the Allied forces drove them back. Eventually they forced Rommel to go on the defensive and dig in, trying to re-supply.
As the tone of the battle changed, the Allied forces did go on the offensive, pressuring the German & Italian positions while taking the high ground. Despite the fierce counter attacks, with the help of heavy artillery and air support they could keep the Afrika Korps in check. By the end of the month a stalemate was in place, both sides licking their wounds after suffering heavy losses. While the Allied forces suffered a loss of 13.000 men, they caused a significant dent to the Axis as well with most of their armored forces damaged or taken out, 10.000 killed or wounded and capturing an additional 7.000. At long last the advancement of the Afrika Korps was halted, and the tide of the battle was about to turn.
As Churchill was dissatisfied with the performance of Auchinleck, by August he relieved him, giving the command of the Eight Army to William Gott. As Gott’s aircraft got shot down while being on the way to take up his command, Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was appointed in his place. Monty – as he was universally known – was from the start a lot more respected by the troops than Auchinleck ever was, which definitely helped the morale as well.
During the period August to end of October both sides were re-supplying heavily, though Rommel had serious problems, as his stretched supply lines were under constant attack from Allied air- and naval forces. He knew that the more he waited, the more of a lead in numbers Montgomery would have, so by the end of August he ordered an attack against the El Alamein lines for one last time. While they were able to push the Allied forces back until the Alam el Halfa ridge, in a few days the superiority in numbers combined with the usual artillery and aerial bombardment did prevail, and Rommel had to go on the defensive once again. He fully expected to be followed by the Allied forces which could have been disastrous, but Montgomery ordered his troops to hold their defensive lines. He was waiting for something specific – a long awaited reinforcement of 300 Sherman tanks that would be superior to the German and Italian armored forces present in the African theater. His plan was to gain enough superiority in numbers, to completely destroy the Afrika Korps with a decisive blow. It was not long now…
Second Battle of El Alamein
By end of October Montgomery was ready, commanding about 200.000 men and 1000 tanks against Rommel’s 110.000 men and 500 tanks. The constant pressure on the Axis’s supply lines also meant that by that time the fuel stocks of the Afrika Korps were down to a 3 day supply only, seriously limiting their freedom of movement. Of course Rommel was fully aware of the Allied attack to come, and stiffened up his defenses as much as possible, laying down an extensive minefield consisting of approximately half a million mines. He himself was hospitalized in Germany and command was temporarily handed over to Georg Stumme.
The offensive started with over 800 artillery guns raining death on the German lines. Legend says that the noise was so great that the ears of the gunners bled in the constant barrage. As the troops moved forward, Montgomery’s forces soon realized that they underestimated the depth of the mine fields and the heavy resistance they would face. It took them two days to slowly break through in one point, but the enemy lines did not collapse. There were casualties of course, including Stumm, who upon inspecting the lines got under enemy fire and died in a heart attack. Rommel however was already on his way back, aborting his treatment.
Montgomery re-assessing the situation changed his plans, and instead of the continued western push ordered the Australian forces (who did break through earlier) to strike towards the northern coastline. The returning Rommel found a grim picture – his forces exhausted and on half rations (many of them sick), and almost out of fuel. He was worried greatly by the northern advance of the Australian forces and decided to move troops away from the south, knowing that he could not move them back later purely because of a lack of fuel. Yet, the British forces were unable to capitalize on the weakened defenses in the south, being over and over again stopped by anti-tank guns. Some progress was still made, as at the same time two German oil tankers have been sunk by torpedo bombers, removing the last hope to re-fuel Rommel’s army. He himself noted in his diary that with these ships sinking the battle was lost. He was not giving up though and started smaller offensives to reclaim previously lost important positions. Allied forces– although being on the verge of being overrun a couple of times – did hold out eventually.
Ten days into the offensive Operation Supercharge was started, aimed at the base of the Axis defense at Tel el Aqqaqir. The start of the operation was marked with a devastating seven hour long aerial bombardment, followed by a four and a half hour long shelling of the enemy positions. After infantry opened up lines in the minefield, the 9th Armored Brigade engaged the enemy. Although from their originally 130 tanks only 24 remained operational by the end and they could not achieve a breakthrough, they did destroy about 100 German and Italian tanks, crippling Rommel’s armored forces. While the losses were similar on both sides, this meant only a portion of Montgomery’s forces and the Afrika Korps had almost no tanks left.
Rommel knew that by staying in his positions any longer he would face complete destruction, and informed Hitler about the implications. Once again the reply refused any form of retreat, marking the only acceptable options being “victory or death”. Rommel decided that Hitler can stick it, and while confirming his determination towards the leader, he ordered a gradual retreat to all but three divisions. By the 4th of November the Axis forces left their positions, and by the 11th of November they were out of Egypt, eventually retreating as far back as Tunisia, where they could continue the opposition for 6 more months before capitulating in 1943.
This decisive Allied victory marked the change of tide in the battle over Northern Africa, and raised the morale of the Allied forces in general, being the first offensive against the Axis forces since the start of the war. Over these more than two weeks the losses were rampant, both sides losing about 500 tanks while the Allied forces losing about 14.000 men versus the Axis losses estimated between 40-60.000 (including 35.000 prisoners). Montgomery was celebrated as the hero and Churchill’s position was now solid as well back home. Times were changing…