OPERATION BERTRAM – THE COVER PLAN FOR EL ALAMEIN II

The deception scheme was composed of a number of separate plans, their component parts coming together to form a veritable symphony of deceit. The first problem was the approach tracks that were bulldozed from Martello to the front line. Although there was absolutely no hope of hiding their existence from the Luftwaffe, their purpose could be concealed. Ayrton went up in an aircraft to enact the role of a German reconnaissance pilot taking photographs. Ayrton’s solution to the problem of the tracks was ingenious. He called in at the Chief Engineer’s with annotated aerial photographs and suggested that rather than starting at Martello and driving directly to the front, the bulldozers should complete only patches of the track and join them together only much closer to D-Day.

More solutions were found to disguise the stores. Over 3,000 tons of stores had to be hidden at El Alamein train station, about five miles behind the front line. This included 600 tons of supplies, 2,000 tons of petrol, oil and lubricants and 420 tons of engineer stores. A similar amount required concealment at a second station about 15 miles to the east. In the forward area the most pressing problem was finding suitable storage for the cans of petrol. Ayrton and Robb found that there were about a hundred sections of slit-trenches in the area, all of which were lined with masonry. Supposing that these trenches were already well known to Germans from reconnaissance photographs, it was decided to line the trenches with a single course of petrol cans on each side. This slight reduction in the width of the trenches did not appear to change the shadows cast by the trenches, so 2,000 tons of fuel was successfully stored overnight. Confirmation of their success came when British air observers were sent out to locate the new fuel dumps and failed.

The food supplies arrived at the dumping ground in trucks by night. The trucks were met by guides and led to pre-arranged unloading sites in the open, featureless piece of terrain. As they were unloaded, the stores were stacked in such a way that they resembled three-ton trucks covered by camouflage netting. Further stores were stacked under the apron of the net, with the remaining boxes stacked and hidden under soldiers’ tents. To complete the illusion of a park of thin-skinned vehicles, a small unit of soldiers was moved into the area to animate it and real trucks were diverted to drive through it to create tracks and demonstrate the sort of activities associated with a vehicle park. Similar arrangements were made for the concealment of ammunition and other military stores close to the rail stations at El Alamein and also further back.

The British offensive was to be opened by an enormous barrage of around 400 25-pounder field guns. These guns had to be hidden at their assembly point and then again at their barrage positions. It was not simply a case of hiding the guns, but also their limbers and the distinctively shaped quad tractors used to transport them. It was found that by backing the limber up to the gun and rigging a canvas dummy vehicle over the top with the limber and gun’s wheels protruding, the effect was to produce a convincing three-ton truck. In turn the quads had a rectangular tent put over the back of them to make them also appear as trucks. Each gun crew was then trained in making the transformation from assembly area (Cannibal 1) to the barrage point (Cannibal 2) – the codename Cannibal deriving from the way the dummy ‘swallowed’ the thing it was protecting. When the time came to move the guns into position, the transition occurred at night and the gun crews had their tents and covers in place before the sun came up.

As for the Martello staging area, the problem was collecting hundreds of armoured vehicles in an area just 12 x 8 miles (19 x 13km). Since there was no way of hiding such an assembly, it was decided to fill up the Martello area with as many thin-skinned vehicles and dummies as quickly as possible. The Germans would no doubt notice this concentration area, but because nothing appeared to be happening there, they would come to ignore it.

Meanwhile, each tank that was destined to arrive at Martello was assigned a special point where it would be concealed. Each tank was provided with a ‘sunshield’, an invention that Barkas attributed to Wavell, who had earlier shown him a sketch of a tank with a canopy over it. The idea was that each tank would have a quickly detachable cover to make it look like a truck. In all, 772 ‘sunshields’ were issued before El Alamein. The tank crews were trained how to use them and then taken up to Martello and shown their hiding place in advance. On the night of 20–21 October Xth Armoured Corps began moving from its staging area to Martello. On arrival the crews had their ‘sunshields’ rigged before first light. Back at the staging area, the track marks were obliterated, the empty fuel cans were collected and a dummy tank was erected where the real tank had previously stood. From the point of view of German photo-reconnaissance, nothing had changed since the previous day, except the arrival of more trucks in an already busy assembly area behind the British lines.

The main focus of the build up in the south, where Montgomery wanted Rommel to think the attack was coming from, began on 26 September with the start of the dummy water pipeline codenamed Diamond. A five-mile-long section of trench was dug and a ‘pipeline’ laid parallel to it. The actual ‘pipeline’ was constructed from crushed, empty petrol cans laid along the ground in a line. Overnight the trench would be filled in and the ‘pipeline’ gathered up to be reused in the next section of trench. Dummy pump houses were built at three points along the line, complete with overhead tanks and can filling stations. To add further credence to the illusion, these areas were populated by dummy vehicles and mannequins of soldiers.

To the east of Diamond, an area codenamed Brian (after Brian Robb) was set aside for the build up of dummy stores. Despite a sandstorm and the unexpected arrival of a horde of British tanks on field manoeuvres, two days before D-Day Barkas’s men had created what appeared to be a huge stockpile of stores.

With the real artillery hidden to the north dummy batteries were set up at the eastern end of what was codenamed the Munassib Depression. This area was chosen for the site of a series of dummy gun batteries, which were set up on 15 October. They were camouflaged exactly the same way a genuine battery would be hidden, but after a few days the camouflage was allowed to lapse so that the Germans would realize the guns were dummies. Shortly after D-Day, the dummy field guns in Munassib were replaced with the genuine items, much to the surprise of a column of German armour which decided to probe against what it thought was a harmless decoy position.

Last, but by no means least, at the opening of the battle a non-existent amphibious landing was staged behind German lines between El Daba and Sidi Abd el Rahman. This operation saw the use of sonic deception – where battle sounds were played over loudspeakers mounted on fast motor torpedo boats operating just off shore. This technique was still in its early stages, but had been pioneered by GSI(d) almost a year earlier. Barkas was not overly impressed with sonic deception, complaining that the recordings of gunfire sounded like dustbins being struck. However, better amplification was being developed by movie companies in the United States and so the ruse would be used again later in the war.

The night of 23 October was clear and brightly illuminated by a full moon. At 9.40pm, the calm was ruptured by the detonation of hundreds of British field guns. For 15 minutes, just short of a thousand British guns pounded the German batteries in front of them. There was a five-minute pause before the barrage recommenced at 10pm, this time targeting German forward positions. Behind the barrage Allied infantry began advancing through the Axis minefields.

At the opening of the battle Rommel was not in Egypt. He had been in poor health since August and had returned to Germany in September on leave. On 3 October he was presented with his field marshal’s baton in Berlin and declared that he was at the gateway to Egypt and had no intention of being flung back.

His understudy was General Georg Stumme. On the night of 23 October Stumme and his chief signals officer went forward on a reconnaissance towards the British lines. It was an ill-chosen adventure moments before the opening of the British attack. In the opening barrage the signals officer was killed by machine-gun fire and Stumme suffered a heart attack. He was unused to the climate in North Africa and had been overworking: the shock of the barrage and the close proximity of the signals officer’s death finished him off. It was some time before he was missed and the body recovered. Meanwhile in Berlin it was a full 24 hours before the seriousness of the situation was realized and Hitler ordered Rommel to return and resume command.

With the charismatic field marshal missing for the first 48 hours of the battle and overwhelming Allied superiority, the end result of El Alamein was never really in doubt. The Axis troops fought hard but were gradually worn down in a battle of attrition. When a renewed offensive began on 2 November Rommel realized the game was up. Despite being told to stand and fight by Hitler, by 4 November the Afrika Korps began to retreat to the west. Four days later the Torch landings began.

The victory at El Alamein is often described as the turning point of the war against the Nazis, or, as Churchill put it, ‘the end of the beginning’. Along with the surrender of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad on 31 January 1943, El Alamein marked a point in the war when the balance swayed in favour of the Allies, and one on which all future successes were built.

Although one might speculate that the German defeat was down to a lack of air superiority, a lack of operational intelligence, the inferiority of their numbers and the disruption of their supplies, the success of Treatment and Bertram cannot be overlooked. Barkas modestly and rightly noted that none of his colleagues was ‘so foolish’ as to think that El Alamein had been won ‘by conjuring tricks, with stick, string and canvas’ and attributed the success to the bravery of the fighting men. However, in a speech in the House of Commons on 11 November Churchill acknowledged the importance of ‘surprise and strategy’ in the battle:

By a marvellous system of camouflage, complete tactical surprise was achieved in the desert. The enemy suspected – indeed, knew – that an attack was impending, but when and where and how it was coming was hidden from him. The Xth Corps, which he had seen from the air exercising fifty miles in the rear, moved silently away in the night, but leaving an exact simulacrum of its tanks where it had been, and proceeded to its points of attack. The enemy suspected that the attack was impending, but did not know how, when or where, and above all he had no idea of the scale upon which he was to be assaulted.

For the first time on a large scale, the planning of a cover for an operation involving camouflage, decoys, bogus signals traffic and double agents, had been successfully achieved. With varying degrees of success, this same recipe would now be applied to every major Allied operation in the build up to the Normandy invasion in 1944.

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