SECOND BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN, (OCTOBER 23-NOVEMBER 4, 1942)
“Operation LIGHTFOOT.” Some histories refer to the earlier Battle of Alam el-Halfa (August 30-September 7, 1942) as “Second El Alamein.” The term is used in this work for the major battle fought from October to November, 1942. British 8th Army retreated from an earlier defeat along the Gazala line during the summer of 1942, pursued by the Afrika Korps and associated Italian forces led by newly promoted Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The retreat was one of several low points for the British in the desert campaign. Another rout was suffered at Mersa Matruh from June 26-28, after which 8th Army dug in along the El Alamein line. The British fought a holding action there in the first three days of July: the First Battle of El Alamein. There followed a series of limited but sharp engagements as the British hammered at Italian divisions in the line throughout July. General Bernard Law Montgomery assumed command in August, upon the accidental death of General William Gott. Rommel first faced Montgomery at Alam el-Halfa on August 30. With his encirclement maneuver blunted, Rommel settled in for the Stellungskrieg to come. Behind the El Alamein line humbled 8th Army regrouped and rearmed, notably with freshly arrived emergency deliveries of American motor transport, better anti-tank guns, and superior Grant and Sherman tanks. Montgomery oversaw the build-up, refusing to attack Rommel as soon as Winston Churchill wanted. He preferred to first ensure overwhelming superiority-particularly in the air-and thus more certain success. That allowed fresh British and Indian divisions and one veteran Australian division to arrive and take up position in the line. Most importantly, Montgomery unquestionably and significantly raised the morale of British and Commonwealth forces and began the recovery that made British 8th Army one of the great Western Allied armies of the war.
Montgomery had access to ULTRA intelligence on Axis strength even as he built up his own. The British also conducted a highly successful deception operation, code named BERTRAM, to hide their concentrations. It began with open movement of 10th Corps to one flank, followed by a secret move back over four nights that was covered by use of elaborate dummy facilities: the British left behind 2,400 canvas vehicles, a phantom force linked by elaborate fake HQs and signals traffic. On the eve of battle, Rommel was absent on sick leave. His temporary replacement was General Georg Stumme. Too much has been made of Rommel’s absence: far more important was the paucity and imbalance of Axis supplies and their vulnerability to air interdiction along a 1,200-mile-long supply route back to Tunisia. Manpower was another concern. The newly renamed “Panzerarmee Afrika” comprised just 82,000 Germans and 42,000 Italians. Many were sick; others were disheartened. The infantry was put in the frontline behind vast desert minefields containing over 500,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Some tanks and most of the artillery was kept in immediate support of the infantry for some semblance of defense-in-depth, but the German and Italian mobile and armored divisions were in reserve on either flank. British experience in fighting Germans in two world wars dictated battle doctrine that was slow and methodical, an approach reinforced by Montgomery’s personal command style and well-suited to the El Alamein terrain. The main battle thus opened with a massive artillery barrage that began timed to the BBC signal late on October 23, and rained down on the enemy through six hours of night terror. The artillery barrage was reinforced with heavy aerial bombardment by waves of Wellingtons bombing deeper gun positions. The barrage was partly intended to cut a path through the Axis Minenkästen. It went unanswered by return fire due to shortages of ammunition on the Axis side and a consequent but controversial decision by Stumme to hold back his artillery from counter-bombardment.
As Allied artillery fire moved over intermediate Axis positions, four infantry divisions and then two armored divisions attacked along a concentrated Schwerpunkt of just six miles of the Axis line, or Hauptkampflinie (HKL). By early morning on the 24th, parts of the northern section of the HKL were overrun by Australian and Scots troops in heavy, bloody, close-in infantry fighting that maximized blunt force and numbers, and sheer guts, over command skill or schemes of maneuver. A counterattack by 15th Panzer Division and the Italian “Littorio” armored division was repulsed with heavy loss of Axis tanks: about 40 percent of the total available. General Stumme was killed by enemy strafing of his scout car. That meant temporary command fell to General Wilhelm von Thoma. In a desperate move to block a British breakthrough along the coast, Rommel-who had hurried back to North Africa-and Thoma ordered 21st Panzer Division holding on the southern flank to race northward. One historian has called this an order for a “Tottenrit” (“death ride”), in a situation the generals already deemed hopeless. The British conducted an operational pause from October 28-29 in the face of an unexpected thickness of the minefields, but more to reorganize for a final breakthrough assault (“Operation SUPERCHARGE”). Most importantly, they did so without stopping heavy bombing and shelling of the now-ragged Axis HKL. The renewed assault was made overnight on November 1, when three armored divisions moved through the blasted German minefields in two massed columns, concealed on either flank by vast smokescreens . With the Afrika Korps down to just 30 tanks in the north, Rommel pulled the last armored and mobile divisions up to the coast from the south, including the fi ne Italian “Ariete” armored division. The “Panzerarmee Afrika,” now shorn of most of its tanks and organic transport and under constant lethal harassment by British fighters and bombers, turned to run. As it did so, Adolf Hitler sent a Haltebefehl order commanding Rommel to stand and fight where he was. He did, his career as ever foremost in mind even over the welfare of his men. That meant leaving his much reduced and exhausted Panzerarmee in place to be smashed by a British and Commonwealth armored onslaught on November 4. Four days later, Anglo-American forces landed in Morocco and Algeria and began moving toward Tunisia, in Rommel’s strategic rear. This time Hitler let Rommel save what he could: he abandoned the Italian infantry and retreated along the coast with all the armor and mechanized forces he had left.
El Alamein was the first major Western victory over the Wehrmacht. The great desert battle was also the greatest solo British and Commonwealth victory over Germans and Italians in World War II. It turned back the Axis threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal; cost Germany invaluable manpower and equipment (200,000 troops and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles); ended Benito Mussolini’s and the Italian military’s pretensions to imperial greatness and Mediterranean empire; and opened the path to total clearance of the Axis from North Africa: within months, all Axis forces on the continent would be crushed or captured by a Western Allied vice closing on Tunisia. El Alamein importantly bolstered flagging British morale, elevated Montgomery to premier British field commander, and was the essential prelude to clearance of North Africa and follow-on invasions of Sicily and Italy as the Western Allies knocked the first Axis nation out of the war in September 1943. Winston Churchill famously said of the victory at El Alamein: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
THIRD BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN, (OCTOBER 23-NOVEMBER 4, 1942)
An alternate nomenclature in which the fight more usually referred to as Alam el-Halfa is designated “Second El Alamein,” with the main battle fought in October-November redesignated “Third Battle of El Alamein.”
EL ALAMEIN LINE
Located fewer than 100 km west of Alexandria, this British defensive line in western Egypt was anchored by a little rail junction village on the coast called El Alamein. The position was heavy with minefields, stretching from the coast to the Qattara Depression, which was impassable by the armor of the Afrika Korps and formed the only natural barrier and inland flank in the western desert.
Suggested Reading: Robert Citino, Death of the Wehrmacht (2007); John Latimer, Alamein (2002); J. Strawson, El Alamein: Desert Victory (1981).