El Alamein and the Pursuit After… Part I

General Erwin Rommel and staff in North Africa.

On November 4, the time had come for Eighth Army to pursue a crippled and defeated Axis force. Montgomery was well aware that Rommel’s army was now gravely damaged and in retreat. He launched two armored divisions, the 1st and the 10th, and the New Zealand Division, with an attached armored brigade, in pursuit. The Panzerarmee’s withdrawal presented Montgomery with a priceless opportunity because, according to many German sources, it was poorly conducted. Afrika Korps’ War Diary reported:

Officers of all ranks had lost their heads and were making hasty and ill considered decisions, with the result that confidence had been lost, and in some places panic had broken out. Some vehicles were set on fire on or beside the road, and guns were abandoned or destroyed because there were no tractors for them. A large number of vehicles had left their units and were streaming back without orders.

The Diary also recorded with some surprise, “No contact with the enemy all day.”

The War Diary of the 90th Light Division chronicled similar conditions, admitting that there was “very little discipline during the withdrawal.” It also claimed German transport and supply units were “fleeing in wild panic.” As a result, its withdrawal from Alamein was “very difficult.”

The pursuit phase of the Alamein battle has been strongly criticized by many writers who believe that Montgomery acted with undue caution. The British official history made a perceptive observation that, “Whether they could have captured or destroyed more of the Panzerarmee than they did will be argued as long as military history is read.” This has certainly happened. Alexander McKee accurately stated, “There was no pursuit, merely a follow up.” Correlli Barnett has been one of Montgomery’s harshest critics, believing that Montgomery “signally fail[ed] to take advantage of this astonishing flow of precisely accurate intelligence, which removed all guesswork from generalship” and that his failure to destroy Panzerarmee at Alamein “calls in question Montgomery’s generalship at this stage of his career.” Johnston and Stanley wrote, “The pursuit was poorly planned and confused, a fact Montgomery never acknowledged.” As early as the evening of November 3, Freyberg had warned Lieutenant General Herbert Lumsden, 10 Corps commander, that Rommel “will slip away if they are not careful.” The cautious pursuit, including by Freyberg, ensured that this happened.

There was one overriding factor, however, that explains and perhaps excuses Montgomery’s caution. This was the state of his armored corps, his prized corps de chasse. So far in the Alamein battle, 10 Corps had failed in every task it had been allocated, had demonstrated excessive caution, and an inability to follow even the simplest directives. His trust in his armored commanders, especially in 10 Corps commander Lumsden, was “at an all time low.” As it was, this Corps that would be used during the pursuit, it was only natural that Montgomery wanted to keep it on as tight a leash as possible to ensure that it did in fact accomplish even the most limited of tasks assigned to it. John Harding, commanding 7 Armoured Division during the pursuit and “in favour of pressing on all-out, hard as I could go,” thought at the time that Montgomery was being “overcautious” in restraining his armored formations. Harding later changed his mind. “Montgomery was very conscious of the fact that we had already been twice up and twice back and he was determined not to be pushed back for a third time,” Harding said. A third defeat could have prolonged the war in North Africa. “Looking back on it all, I think he was right to be cautious,” was Harding’s conclusion.

And, as John Keegan has pointed out in his history of the Second World War, with the exception of the Soviets’ Operation Bagration, the Allies were never able to encircle and destroy retreating German armies. Montgomery cannot be judged too harshly for not achieving something other British or American commanders were also unable to do when given the opportunity.

Montgomery initially planned to use the New Zealand Division, augmented by an armored brigade, as the main pursuit force. He directed them to the Fuka escarpment some 45 miles to the west. As the New Zealanders set off for Fuka, the British armor of 10 Corps made a series of shorter wheels to the coast of some 10 to 15 miles. But there was a considerable delay before the New Zealanders could get moving. Freyberg recorded about the lull, “The congestion of vehicles in the forward area would have done credit to Piccadilly. Fortunately the RAF ruled the skies.” Montgomery’s fears about his armored formations soon proved justified as the armor “swanned” about the desert out of coordinated control in several fruitless encircling movements. Nor did the New Zealand Division, which de Guingand described as Montgomery’s “mobile shock troops,” demonstrate much dash or daring. Freyberg was especially concerned not to let his division get mauled by the Afrika Korps for the fourth time. He still erroneously estimated Rommel to have a powerful armored force under command. To his subordinate commanders, Freyberg had stated that “the policy is not to fight but to position our force to bottle him.” Freyberg, the commander of the three left hooks carried out by the New Zealand Division, was in no doubt as to the purpose of a left hook and tended to view it as a substitute for heavy fighting—a way of achieving a victory with minimal casualties. The New Zealanders made three attempts to entrap Panzerarmee using the wide encircling “left hook.” All three failed. Kippenberger informed the New Zealand official historian:

You have one or two tricky questions to deal with in this volume, particularly the conduct of the three “Left Hooks” which seem to me to have been clumsily and rather timidly executed. I thought so at the time and am inclined to the same opinion still.

Ironically, both Montgomery’s and Freyberg’s caution, though understandable, was to prove more costly in the long run. As Rommel pointed out, if Montgomery had abandoned his restraint after Alamein, it “would have cost him far fewer losses in the long run than his methodical insistence on overwhelming superiority in each tactical action, which he could only obtain at the cost of his speed.” The failure to prevent Panzerarmee from withdrawing, especially after the Alamein battle, meant much hard fighting ahead with the North African campaign dragging on for another six months.

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There were many reasons for the defeat of the Axis forces at Alamein, not the least important being their weakness in logistics and firepower. Rommel devoted nine pages of his papers analyzing “the decisive battle of the African campaign,” which he had lost. He did this primarily to counter accusations from the armchair strategists that the Axis troops and their commanders had performed poorly at Alamein. Rommel wrote that these accusations came from those whose military careers were “notable for a consistent absence from the front.” Rommel attributed his defeat at Alamein primarily to his weak logistics, especially in weapons, fuel, and ammunition and to British air supremacy. The “extreme concentrations” of Eighth Army’s artillery fire and “locally limited attacks” by infantry with an “extremely high state of training” was also important. He was especially impressed with the British infantry’s ability to attack at night, writing that “Night attacks continued to be a particular speciality of the British.” Rommel finished his analysis by stating that the bravery of all German and many Italian troops “was admirable.” Alamein had been a struggle and a defeat but it was still “a glorious page in the annals of the German and Italian peoples.” But in the end, the enemy was just too strong and their own material resources too small. In this imbalance “lay destruction.”

Other German accounts placed considerable stress on their material weakness at Alamein when compared to the resources available to Eighth Army and the DAF. They seldom gave credit to the performance of Eighth Army’s commanders or soldiers. The War Diary of 15 Panzer Division was especially critical:

The English did not win the battle of Alamein by superior leadership or dash. On the contrary, after their original plan of attack failed they worked their way systematically forward, always probing ahead with the greatest care choosing limited objectives. Often, particularly after our withdrawal from the Alamein line, the enemy failed to perceive or take advantage of good opportunities to destroy German troops.

The main reasons given for the British victory were Eighth Army’s overwhelming artillery firepower and the DAF’s air superiority. The War Diary did admit, though, that Eighth Army’s infantry were stronger and rested and that this infantry was “superior to the Germans, and still more to the Italians, in night fighting.” But Panzerarmee, it stated, had been crushed by the sheer weight of numbers brought against it. Eighth Army’s successful deception plans had convinced Panzerarmee and German military intelligence that its opponents were more than 40 percent stronger than they actually were.

The secretly recorded conversation of a German infantry officer captured on the night of October 29 was particularly revealing about the state of Panzerarmee’s logistics. The lieutenant from 2 Battalion, 125 Infantry Regiment told his cell mate, an officer from submarine U-559:

We’ve been in FRANCE, in the BALKANS, and in CRETE. Throughout the whole of the French campaign my Company only had thirty-five killed and seventy-five wounded. This time there was no way out for us, it was either death or capture. I was right in the front line, about fifty metres behind my platoons. When the infantry came along there was practically nothing more I could do with our 7.65 guns. As for our M.P.’s [Machine Pistols: the German Schmeisser submachine gun], none of them would fire because of the magazine. We’ve had them since 1940. All the springs were bad and we couldn’t get replacements. You can fire one round and that’s all. Our lack of supplies in AFRICA is appalling.

German intelligence officer Hans-Otto Behrendt believed that Ultra intelligence “played a major part” in the defeat of the last German-Italian offensive at Alam Halfa and had played “a crucial part in the sinking of Rommel’s oil tankers and supply convoys.” For the final October battle, though, “The decisive factor now was quite simply the sheer British superiority in tanks, artillery and aircraft for which no amount of tactical skill and self-sacrifice could compensate.”

Certainly, Eighth Army had superior logistics and firepower, tanks that could match the Germans, and the DAF dominated the skies above the battlefield. But it was the way these assets were used that made the critical difference. The Eighth Army’s artillery was concentrated and its firepower coordinated with infantry and armor in a master fireplan. In the twelve days of the battle, Eighth Army’s artillery fired more than one million rounds of twenty-five-pounder ammunition and throughout the battle “some artillery action was occurring all the time, and heavy action for most of the time.” The DAF made extraordinary efforts to support the troops on the ground and was most effective at disrupting enemy concentrations and their communications. During the October battle, the DAF flew 10,405 sorties and their American allies flew 1,181. This compares with just 1,550 German and 1,570 Italian sorties. It made a telling difference and the effect on morale on both sides was critical.

An American study compiled in 1947, written by the German officer Generalmajor Hans-Henning von Holtzendorff, was adamant that Eighth Army’s success at Alamein was primarily through its use of tanks. Von Holtzendorff wrote, “El Alamein was decided by the numerically far superior Panzer forces of the British, which were not dispersed as before, but were now concentrated and to some extent were equipped with American material.” All of these elements made vital contributions to Eighth Army’s victory.

In infantry, though, Eighth Army’s margin was not so pronounced as many historians have claimed, and the October Alamein battle was primarily an infantry battle. While it was a considerable advantage having a materiel superiority over the enemy, it still needed skill, courage, and determination to effectively apply what you had. One thing Eighth Army did in this October battle was to keep the fight going for over a week, which ultimately wore down the Panzerarmee. This was an old-fashioned battle of attrition, but it produced a decisive outcome. The 9 Division’s Report on Operations believed that this was the most crucial “lesson” of the battle. It began this section of the Report with the heading Maintenance of Pressure. Under this heading it perceived:

So often in military history, the battle has gone to the side which had the will or the strength to hang on just long enough to outlast the opponent. By maintaining offensive pressure, the enemy is forced to use his reserves and if this pressure can be maintained until these reserves are used up and he has insufficient resources to meet the new threat, defeat follows.

In this battle, by maintaining pressure by a series of attacks to the north and to the west, the Axis reserves were drawn in and steadily worn down until on 4 November—11 days after it had been planned to occur—penetration was effected.

This pressure was maintained throughout the battle by the numerous sorties of the DAF, the interdiction of Rommel’s supply line by the Royal Navy, and the cooperation of all arms of Eighth Army. An Air Ministry Report recorded that the Alamein battle “demonstrated untold value of good cooperation between all arms and services.” It was an old lesson to learn, but this cooperation between arms and services was a critical development. It signified, as Alexander McKee noted, a crucial shift. He wrote of the battle: “At long last the British were learning how to make war—which is not the same thing as fighting.”

There was little doubt, though, that the primary responsibility for breaking the Alamein position had been with the infantry divisions backed by heavy artillery and air support. Freyberg’s report on the El Alamein operations concluded that the “value of well-trained infantry, capable of attacking by night with the bayonet against any form of defence, was fully proved.” Jonathan Fennell was correct in his assessment that the infantry units of Eighth Army were “Montgomery’s main offensive force.” Fennell also observed that in winning this last Alamein battle, “many of the frontline battalions of Eighth Army suffered over 50 per cent casualties.” Being the Army commander’s main offensive weapon came with a heavy cost.

It has been argued that Alamein could not have been won without the contributions of the two elite infantry divisions in Eighth Army identified earlier by Rommel—9 Australian Division operating in the north, and two brigades of New Zealand infantry plus supporting units in the center, and later in the pursuit. That the New Zealanders played a vital role was uncharacteristically recognized by Montgomery:

The Battle of Egypt was won by the good fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire. Of all these soldiers none were finer than the fighting men from New Zealand…. Possibly I myself am the only one who really knows the extent to which the action of the New Zealand Division contributed towards the victory.

Montgomery sent the Australian commander a similar message of praise on November 2, just as Operation Supercharge was underway. Montgomery wrote to Morshead that, “Your men are absolutely splendid and the part they have played in this battle is beyond all praise.” General Alexander was also effusive in his praise of the 9th Australian Division when he addressed them at a parade on the Gaza airstrip on December 22. He pointed out that “The battle of Alamein has made history, and you are in the proud position of having taken a major part in that great victory.” Alexander concluded his address by telling the Australians that “one thought I shall cherish above all others—under my command fought the 9th Australian Division.” Churchill too acknowledged in his history of the war that it was the “ceaseless, bitter fighting” that the Australians had endured at Alamein that “had swung the whole battle in our favour.” Twenty-five years after the battle, Montgomery wrote that “it would not be right to single out any for special praise” when all had performed well. But then Montgomery did exactly that, stating, “I must say this—we would not have won the battle in ten days without that magnificent 9th Australian Division.”

It was heady stuff and it was entirely appropriate that the Australians and New Zealanders received high praise for their efforts in the October battle. No historian could ever dispute their key roles. But Montgomery was correct when he gave credit to the fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire, although he perhaps should have mentioned the Empire airmen as well. Throughout the battle Eighth Army had “complete protection from serious air attack and, at the same time, had the benefit of such close co-operation and continuous air support as never before.” There were, of course, other formations and corps that contributed significantly to the outcome of the battle. All German accounts comment on the weight and effectiveness of Eighth Army’s artillery. No infantry division made more attacks nor suffered heavier casualties than 51st Highland Division. And while the armored divisions may not have performed as well as Montgomery and the infantry commanders wanted, no formation did more to win the battle than the 9th Armoured Brigade. The New Zealand official history was correct when it stated that “Finally, tribute for the victory should be bestowed on all those Allied troops who had a share in the fighting and behind the lines.”

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One thought on “El Alamein and the Pursuit After… Part I

  1. Nice post, the African theatre doesn’t get enough credit in my opinion. It was an essential part of the war and an important testing ground for American as well as British soldiers. I like to see the progression as they slowly discover what works and what doesn’t on a modern battlefield.

    Like

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