Armies of El Alamein III


The United Kingdom forces contained a rift of another kind: the perpetual division between infantry and armour – the cavalry, who saw themselves as a kind of military aristocracy. It was all a curious extension of the English class system based on the cult of the horse.

Not that there were many United Kingdom infantry there in July. Those that were came in the form of a rebuilt brigade and various mobile columns from 50th Division, which had suffered severely in the Gazala fighting and lost one entire brigade. But infantry officers held sway in army command, and the rift between infantry and armour can be inferred from Dorman Smith’s caustic reference, following an unpleasant scene on 4 July, to ‘temperamental cavalry generals’, his allusion to ‘gross snobbery’ in cavalry regiments and his belief that those in armoured regiments regarded infantry battles as ‘vulgar brawls’.

And he quotes with implied approval a statement attributed to Wavell in 1932: ‘I was once attached to a cavalry regiment. I only heard one order given at any time. It was, “Trot on, Algie”.’

For its part, the cavalry made its own implied reference to this rift in a memorandum by Lieutenant-Colonel E. O. Burne of 12th Lancers, who presumably wished his views to be known to posterity. He appears to have been in a state of explosive anger when he tore off his protest against army reforms that curbed the cavalry practice of seeking out and recruiting the brightest young officers, a custom he justified with the argument that the Englishman was the inventor of the club, the club system was in his blood, ‘and not unnaturally he likes to belong to the best club. A good regiment is regarded as a good club by both officers and men, and round it are built up innumerable welfare associations and social societies’.

‘The argument that popular regiments get a monopoly of the best class of officer is but a point in favour of the old system,’ he wrote. ‘Under the new system the RAC will not get the good officers at all. The powerful trade unions of the Guards Brigades and Rifle Regiments will see to that.’ Trade unions, indeed!

Such were the divisions on both sides. Dorman Smith blamed many of the July failures on the pig-headed independence of the Dominion formations, and in particular accused the Australians of causing the final catastrophe on 27 July. He mourned the absence of ‘docile, obedient, bull-headed British divisions instead of these brave but temperamental Dominion troops, each totally different from every other contingent’. ‘Eighth Army,’ he was to write, ‘was very distinctly labelled, “Handle with care”.’

Auchinleck, too, had his reservations about his Dominion troops. In a letter to Brooke on 25 July, reviewing the recent disastrous events and the absence of trained mobile troops, he complained that despite their ‘magnificent material’ they were ‘very hard to teach’.

They are apt to think that once they have been in battle they have little to learn and are on the whole suspicious of any attempts to teach them. Some of them say quite openly that we are incompetent ourselves and so unfit to teach them or anyone else. They are not alone in this, of course.

‘… there is no doubt that their intensely democratic feelings make it most difficult for their officers to insist on real hard work being done when they are out of the battle zone. They simply do not understand the meaning of continuous and intensive training. Freyberg is an exception, of course, and does insist on hard training, but he has very few trained or experienced officers to back him up and he has to send the best of his leaders back to New Zealand.’

Rommel, for his part, intoned his own lamentation over the Italians, who undeniably were resistant not just to work but also to accepting the dangers of battle. Whatever Auchinleck may have thought of his Dominion troops, they faced up to shot and shell and could be relied on to fight with spirit.

This mix of nationalities imposed its own pattern on the battles of July.

The initial Axis attacks fell on the South Africans and Indians. By the second day of battle the British were in the field with their tanks and some battle groups, while the South Africans held on in and around Alamein. As the Eighth Army turned to counter-attack, the Australians, New Zealanders and more Indian units took up the fight, with the British tanks more or less nibbling at the edges, at least until the arrival of a brand new armoured brigade that threw itself into the fray with such abandon that it disintegrated on impact. Remembering that Germany’s foe was, as the German song had it, England, Rommel might reasonably have wondered where his true enemy was.

But then he really had little time to ponder such niceties of identification. The British shrewdly hacked away at the Italians, whom Rommel ruefully confessed were ‘easy meat’, with the intention of so isolating the Germans that they could be more easily overcome. To strengthen his positions, Rommel was compelled to take away formations from his already weak German units and scatter them among the Italians. The pattern for Rommel became one of frenetic mobility as crisis followed crisis and the collapse of the Axis positions seemed imminent.

Looking at the relative strengths of the two armies, we might wonder why there was so much panic at the time. But of course those in Egypt did not have our perspective, and Pienaar, the South African commander, and Gott, the 13th Corps commander, both feared the worst, while in Cairo there was a distinct impression that the gothic hordes would soon be tramping down the coast road to Cairo. Around the world people held their breath.

Yet Rommel reached the Alamein defences with minuscule German forces, to be opposed by an army superior in numbers and fire power, and in much better physical shape. The German forces consisted, supposedly, of three divisions – 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, which made up the Afrika Korps, and the 90th Light Division, normally under direct Army control. Between them they could not muster the strength of one division. At full strength they would have fielded 37,000 men, 371 tanks and 466 anti-tank guns, plus artillery, and in addition there would have been the army artillery with another 3,000 men. The head count on 1 July would be no more than a tenth of that number.

90th Light, which should have had 12,000 men, attacked on 1 July with 76 officers and 1,600 other ranks, of which just over 1,000 were infantry. They had a mixed bag of British, Russian and German artillery pieces, and only 32 anti-tank guns, of which two were British six-pounders and 12 were Russian guns, booty from the Russian front.

The two panzer divisions had between them only 55 tanks, all that was left of the 332 tanks with which they had begun the offensive at Gazala on 26 May, and 15 armoured cars.

On 8 July, when there had been a long enough pause to take stock, the Germans found they had 50 tanks between the two divisions, with each division having a rifle regiment of 300 men and ten anti-tank guns, and two batteries of artillery. 90th Light had an overall strength of 1,500 men, 12 per cent of establishment, 30 anti-tank guns, two batteries and three reconnaissance battalions with 15 armoured cars between them. Then there was the army artillery, which had 11 heavy and 4 light batteries, and the army anti-aircraft artillery with 26, 88 mm and 25, 20 mm guns.

The Italian XX Motorised Corps, which should have had 430 tanks among 3 divisions, Ariete, Littorio and Trieste, could field only 54 tanks and 8 motor battalions with an overall strength of 1,600 men. Also present were ‘elements’ of X and XXI Corps consisting of 11 infantry battalions, each of about 200 men.

In the course of July reinforcements did come forward, though casualties largely offset these and Rommel’s forces did not gain in strength either in men or tanks. By 15 July more than 2,000 Germans had flown in from Crete and a start made with bringing in the 164th Light African Division. Towards the end of July the Ramcke Parachute Brigade arrived, an event that led Auchinleck to warn his army of a possible airborne attack.

The Italians were making arrangements to bring in substantial forces that included tanks, armoured cars and self-propelled guns. Seven infantry regiments and 4 artillery regiments were flown in. The Folgore Parachute Division was to come at once, to be followed by Pistoia and Friuli Divisions. But all this would take time, and throughout July Rommel watched his Italian forces diminish and his German forces barely hold their own.

But if the British overestimated their enemy, so also did the Germans, though Rommel believed – or perhaps hoped – that he could drive right through to Cairo. Rommel saw a continuous defence line across his path, yet the number of British and Commonwealth troops who stood to at first light on 1 July would probably total no more than 25,000. This was few enough, but there was a good concentration in the north at least, and to a greater or lesser degree all units were dug in.

The only complete division, less a small number of companies that had been sent to the rear, was the 2nd New Zealand, which had reassembled after a wild break out by two of its brigades from Minqar Qaim, south of Mersa Matruh, a few days earlier. The 1st South African was a coherent division, but two of its brigades had been converted to battle groups. There were two Indian brigades, the 18th and 6th, in different areas, and 7th Motor Brigade, a remnant of the veteran 7th Armoured Division, able to field only light tanks and armoured cars. The only armoured forces available on that first morning were 18 tanks of 1st Armoured Division. The rest of the division’s forces, which were, in any case, in a more or less dazed state after a fighting withdrawal, were either trapped in soft sand or awaiting repair. The 1st Armoured Division was really a division in name only, as its two brigades were a make-and-mend job from the fragments left over from the Gazala battle. It was not a force with the coherence that comes from long training together.

There were therefore strengths and weaknesses in the Eighth Army of which Rommel was unaware. Auchinleck had reinforcements close at hand in Syria, Iraq and Persia (now Iran) in the shape of formations stationed there to ward off any German incursion from the north, and through force of circumstances he was compelled, with reluctance, to call them down. While the outside world worried about what might happen at El Alamein, the strategists were also concerned about what would happen should the Russians give way, and Auchinleck was in effect fighting with the occasional glance over his shoulder. His hope was to achieve a quick decision in the Desert and return the borrowed units to the north, and this was an unseen factor in what happened during July.

The New Zealanders had come from Syria, and the Indians from Persia. Back at the Delta and soon to come forward was the 9th Australian Division, fully manned but short of equipment, which had also come from Syria. Further Indian brigades were brought down from the north during the month.

Eighth Army’s ace card should have been its tank reserves. 1st Armoured quickly built up its numbers to easily outnumber Rommel’s few panzers, and another armoured division, the 8th, was already on its way from Britain. Part of this new division was sunk, part sent to India by mistake, and part delayed at Durban for ship repairs, but by some miracle of efficiency one brigade, the 23rd, arrived early in July and was flung into the fray on 22 July. At that time, its arrival brought Auchinleck’s tank numbers up to 450 compared with Rommel’s 33 on that day. A cynic might argue, however, that the enemy profited most from this disproportionate number of British tanks; they provided him with excellent target practice for his anti-tank guns.

In looking at the armies of July, an obvious question that comes to mind is why was Rommel left to languish with so slender resources when victory in Africa would have yielded such rich prizes. In a sense, Alamein was to become a German Gallipoli, an alternative front where opportunities were lost for lack of military commitment and political will.

The reason for this neglect, according to a German admiral, was that the German Army was obsessed by a Continental attitude. Germany was a Continental power experienced in Continental wars, and engaged in a Continental struggle with Russia. Vice-Admiral Weichold, Chief German Liaison Officer in Rome and Flag Officer, German Naval Command, 1940–43, asserted in a post-war essay that Germany’s failure to understand the importance of sea power deprived her of the will to seize control of the Mediterranean, which would have enabled more ready supply and reinforcement of Rommel, and blinded her to what could be achieved in North Africa. The Italians, who had a fleet in the Mediterranean, might have pulled it off, but, as with their army, the fleet’s technology and command structure were both outdated, and there was a ‘silent admission’ of British naval superiority in experience and achievement in battle. We might feel that the Italians saw the Royal Navy as we, in our more pessimistic moments, saw the German Army.

Rommel complained constantly and bitterly about his army’s neglected supply position, blaming those in Rome who did not recognise that the North African war had reached its climax, and the ineffectual Italian navy, a great many of whose officers, he believed, ‘like many other Italians’, were not supporters of Mussolini and preferred German defeat to victory. Even Fascist authorities, he asserted, were too pompous and corrupt to help. For whatever reason, Rommel never had enough of anything, and at Alamein he wrote despairingly of how the British were sparing no effort to master the situation.

‘The peril of the hour moved the British to tremendous exertions,’ he wrote. And he viewed with despair his ‘Africans’, as he called them, moving up time and again to fight yet another engagement, while the British, as he saw it, were able to bring up fresh units and withdraw others for rest.

This view of the British situation was a rosy one, but certainly things were in better shape on the Delta side of the line. Rather than a few brave survivors standing with Alexandria at their backs, the Eighth Army was still full of fight, though anyone seeing the helter-skelter flight of broken remnants down the coast road as the enemy drew near might reasonably have assumed that the end was near. Of course, the end was near, but it was not what anyone was expecting.

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