Alternative WWII: Alamein to Basra, 1942 Part I

The White House, Washington

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the telegram announcing the fall of Tobruk to his distinguished guest in the Oval Office, he was taken somewhat aback by the depth of feeling with which the information was greeted. “Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another,” gloomily intoned Winston S. Churchill, the British Prime Minister, who was visibly shaken by the news. He went on to compare the loss of the desert fortress—together with some 33,000 prisoners of war and immeasurable logistic resources—with the equally bitter humiliation of Singapore a mere four months earlier. Even more than Singapore, perhaps, Tobruk had been held up as a symbol of determined resistance, since it had successfully withstood an eight-month siege all through the summer of 1941, effectively halting a brilliant German offensive dead in its tracks. Now, on June 20-21, 1942, the same fortress had fallen within the space of just thirty-six hours, almost before anyone noticed that it was again being attacked. From symbolizing the British bulldog spirit, it had instantly been transformed into a telling icon of unfocused British ineffectiveness; of feebleness, congenital bumbling, and apparently unending defeat. The general public reaction in Britain would be demonstrated within a week, when the government lost the Maldon by-election, after which a vote of no confidence was moved in the House of Commons.

It was no consolation to Churchill that Erwin Rommel, the tireless “Desert Fox,” was promoted field marshal (the youngest in the German Army) just one day after he had accepted Tobruk’s surrender. Nor did it help the British Prime Minister that his generals had repeatedly warned him that they never had any intention of holding Tobruk once the main Gazala position, farther to the west, had been broken. A series of military experts had carefully itemized all the gaping deficiencies in the Tobruk defenses, which had been comprehensively pillaged to strengthen the front line. Finally, it was very cold comfort to be told that 2nd South African Division, assigned as the Tobruk garrison, had been raw, inexperienced, and far from the high-fighting efficiency of the veteran Australians who performed the same duty so staunchly in the previous year. The division lost in Tobruk represented no less than one-third of the total manpower contributed to the war by the Dominion of South Africa, and its capture dealt a shattering blow to the already shaky solidarity of the Commonwealth worldwide.

Far from lessening the force of the blow, the many preparatory warnings about Tobruk made its dramatic but obviously inevitable fall all the more difficult for Churchill to swallow. He was only too well aware that he was personally directly responsible for the scale of the debacle. In his heart of hearts he well knew that he had ignored all the warnings, out of personal pride and a misguided view of press relations. From Washington, some 4,000 miles distant, he had tried to will the success of Tobruk’s defenders, as if he could somehow create minefields, ditches, antitank guns, and high-fighting morale solely by the prodigious charismatic force of his thought waves. In the case of Tobruk, this technique had failed in the most signal and public manner possible, with the result that Churchill now knew that he should never have attempted it at all. He had almost unilaterally overruled his military experts, throwing a monkey wrench into their plans with his last minute insistence that Tobruk should be defended. He must secretly have seen himself as a man who demanded bricks to be made without straw, and who caused the 8th Army’s smooth evacuation eastward to be fatally disrupted by a politically motivated attempt to hold an untenable town merely because its name was known to the public.

When President Roosevelt tried to probe the inner mood of his distinguished guest, he was quickly met with an outward wall of optimism and reassurance. Churchill might have been suffering from personal turmoil and even guilt, but he’d been active in public life long enough to cover such setbacks with the minimum of detectable consternation. Having made his acid observations on how closely Tobruk reminded him of Singapore, he quickly returned to the business that had brought him to the Second Washington Conference in the first place; namely, the vital plans for an early U.S. amphibious landing somewhere within the German area of operations. The Americans and Russians wanted this to be in France, but to Churchill, such an attempt appeared both premature and highly dangerous. His preference was for the landing to be made in Morocco and Algeria, as a means of hastening the complete conquest of North Africa. Once that had been achieved, the whole “soft underbelly” of southern Europe, east as well as west, would lie open to allied attack. Indeed, if it were not achieved, the awful news from Tobruk suggested that the whole British position in Egypt might itself be in dire jeopardy.

With considerable difficulty, Churchill would eventually manage to secure American agreement for the landing in Algeria, but he was always acutely aware that his more urgent business was to stop the rot in the desert, and sooner rather than later. The developing news was far from reassuring. As early as June 23 the proposed Sollum position to cover the Egyptian frontier had been outflanked and abandoned without a fight, as Gen. Neil Ritchie’s battered 8th Army determined instead to make its all-out stand at Mersa Matruh, some 120 waterless miles farther to the rear. On this same day, Ritchie’s immediate superior, Gen. Claude Auchinleck, the Commander in Chief, Middle East (CinC ME), offered his resignation to Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, the chief of the Imperial General Staff. The “Auk” by now had little confidence in either Ritchie or the Matruh plan, and he was acutely aware that this supposed “coastal fortress” was no more than a dangerous cul-de-sac that could easily be bypassed on the landward side, and in which a large force could all too easily be imprisoned. It could boast a number of aging minefields and a plentiful infantry garrison, but its essential armored backup was hastily assembled, badly coordinated, and—perhaps most important—weighed down by a crushing awareness of defeat at Gazala and the vast distances that had subsequently been covered in the retreat. Auchinleck knew that the responsibility for all the recent defeats ultimately rested on his own shoulders, so he felt he should now ask for either an official endorsement of his position or a replacement.

Auchinleck’s letter arrived on Churchill’s desk during the trickiest part of the American negotiations, so it was not perhaps accorded the full reflection it deserved. What Churchill did know was that he had been mightily disappointed by the fall of Tobruk, and so was psychologically ready to accept the offer of a new broom in the Middle East. Auchinleck’s resignation was therefore duly accepted, and Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, who fortuitously happened to be on his way through Cairo on his way to the UK from India, was made CinC ME in his place. Alexander in turn dismissed Ritchie on June 26, replacing him in the 8th Army command by Gen. W.H.E. “Strafer” Gott, a veteran desert hand who was currently commanding XIII Corps outside Matruh.

The “Alamein Line,” Egypt

“Strafer” had an enviable and a bellicose fighting record—as his nickname suggested—which extended back through the whole of the Libyan campaign since the start of the war. He was in many ways the ideal savior for the flagging 8th Army, and even, in his own solid British way, a warrior who sprang from much the same mold as Rommel himself. But by late June 1942 even his friends found Gott tired and mentally oppressed by defeat and by the scale of his responsibilities—he had, after all, risen from command of a brigade to that of an army corps within a short eight months. As a corps commander he had perhaps been promoted one rank above his competence, or at least above the arena in which his sense of aggressive maneuver could operate freely. Maybe it was simply that he had always enjoyed a certain brand of intermittent success when commanding a brigade or a division, but no such result had been accorded to him in the bruising Gazala battle, when he commanded a corps.

In these circumstances, Churchill’s high hopes for his radical hand-over of command were not, alas, destined to be gratified. Alexander was still very new to the theater, and essentially an infantry general coming from the relatively slow moving and tank-free warfare in the Burmese jungle, so he was still feeling his way in this totally novel mechanized environment. In contrast, Gott, who had previously been holding the XIII Corps armor ready to strike from the inland flank, was a true armored warrior, but he was fatally distracted at a critical moment in the battle. He found himself brusquely called into the coastal town of Matruh, introduced to a whole new staff and modus operandi, and in particular was suddenly and disorientatingly invited to share in all the anxieties of W. G. Holmes’s inexperienced, infantry-heavy X Corps. No good could possibly come from this mixture, and in fact Rommel’s first spearhead of just twenty tanks in 21st Panzer Division almost effortlessly managed to bluff the British (who had a total of over 150 tanks in the area) into a precipitate and undignified withdrawal from the Matruh area. By the morning of June 29, after “a night of chaos,” Gott’s totally disorganized command had escaped eastward out of the clutches of its heavily outnumbered attackers, leaving behind some 6,000 prisoners and over forty tanks. In strictly military terms, this actually represented a far more shameful and humiliating outcome than the far bigger loss of Tobruk, which had been a politically designed battle, fought against the advice of the soldiers.

The next supposedly “impregnable” position east of Matruh was the El Alamein line, which was also the final defensible line before Cairo, Alexandria, and the delta. It extended some thirty-eight miles southward from the railway station of Alamein, and it was noteworthy because—unlike its predecessors at Gazala, Sollum, or Matruh—it could not be turned by the inland, or desert, flank. The vast Quattara Depression prohibited the movement of armies south of the line, thereby giving the British a rare opportunity to stand firm and consolidate on a narrow front. It was known that Rommel was by now short of fuel, water, and armored striking power, with a greatly extended line of communication that was under constant bombardment by the RAF. His men were exhausted, and driven forward solely by his own single-minded willpower. In essence, Rommel knew that he would get only one honest shot at the Alamein position, after which—if he failed to break through—he would be doomed to an everlasting logistic deficiency in the face of a rapidly escalating British buildup. If he did succeed in carrying off the coup, however, he would win through to the fabulously supply-rich Nile delta base area, all his replenishment problems solved. Everything therefore depended on the speed with which the Germans could mount their assault, as compared to the skill with which Alexander and Gott could patch together their last minute defenses.

Unfortunately for the British, very little had been prepared on the ground at Alamein, where the famous “line” existed only on maps and the ground itself was often too rocky to allow the rapid digging of trenches. The position rested primarily on a fortified, well-mined, and partially wired “box,” manned by the 3rd South African Brigade, with the battered remainder of 1st South African Division in rear. The box was anchored firmly on the coast and covered a radius of about four miles around the Alamein rail station. The 6th New Zealand Brigade held a smaller box at Bab el Quattara, some thirteen miles farther south, although it had no minefield; and finally, the 9th Indian Brigade held a poorly fortified position at Naqb Abu Dweis, perched on the rim of the Quattara Depression on the extreme left flank. In the wide gaps between these three firm points there was little more than a shifting population of disorganized units still coming in from the west, mixed with a mobile screen of light forces, including all that remained of the once mighty 7th Armored Division. Also, the 18th Indian Brigade, newly arrived from Iraq, was now digging in at Deir el Shein, halfway between the Alamein and Bab el Quattara boxes. In the rear there was little more than the remainder of the New Zealand Division, the two demoralized tank brigades of the 1st Armored Division, commanded by the (equally demoralized) Herbert Lumsden, and then, scattered around Gott’s new HQ at El Imayid, some hastily assembling columns made up of the numerous defeated and unorganized men whom Alexander did not want to continue their retreat any farther back toward the delta.

The new CinC ME was no less well aware than Rommel himself that the coming battle would be decisive for the whole theater, and in order to help him win it, Alexander was particularly anxious to restore morale both at the front and in the rear areas, where rumors were spreading that further withdrawals were already being planned. His personal experience in both France and Burma had been in the management of humiliating retreats, and he was determined not to preside over yet another one now. He therefore cancelled all movement toward the rear, as well as all building of defenses behind the front line, and issued a famously stark general order on the evening of June 30 that decreed that “Alamein will be defended to the last. There will be no further retreat.”

For his part, Rommel instinctively, albeit recklessly, opted not to spend time in careful preparations or reconnaissance, but began his attack as soon as he could, at 0300 on Wednesday, July 1—perhaps the most ominous of all anniversaries for the British Army. He hoped to encircle the Alamein box with the 90th Light Division, while the main striking force, with fifty-five tanks, would advance level with it at first, but would then turn south to drive through the center and rear of the British positions. It was an essentially sound and typically aggressive plan, but it soon bogged down because of poor going and the unexpected discovery of the 18th Indian Brigade directly in the path of the advancing Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK), whose commander, Gen. Walther Nehring, decided to make a frontal assault. This led to a fierce battle that continued throughout the day until the brave but inexperienced defense eventually succumbed before the Germans’ overwhelming force and incomparable familiarity with desert combat tactics. Meanwhile, the 90th Light Division, farther north, received a rude shock when it encountered the massed fire of the entire South African divisional artillery and was pinned down. Then, while the Axis forces were attempting to maintain and replenish their vehicles overnight, they and their supply echelons were illuminated by flares and subjected to almost continuous bombing.

On the credit side, however, Rommel noted that not only wasn’t the “Alamein line” a line at all, but that the British 1st Armored Division had remained apparently supine and inactive all day. He was also gratified to receive news that the Mediterranean fleet had shown prudence, not unmixed with indecent haste, by abruptly removing itself from Alexandria, which was now just ninety miles away from the most advanced Axis airstrips. Also on this day came news that the assault by the 2nd Panzer Army in the Ukraine had caused the Russian front to break “like glass under a hammer,” thereby posing a major long-term threat to the strategic rear of the British Middle East Command.

On his side, Gott might admire and be grateful for the gallant last stand of the 18th Indian Brigade, but he was seriously alarmed by the thirteen-mile gap that its fall had opened in his front line. His staff urged him to pull back the 6th New Zealand and 9th Indian Brigades from the exposed left flank before they could be picked off in turn, but mindful of Alexander’s firm determination to stand and fight, he refused permission for any withdrawal. Instead he urged the 1st Armored Division, which had again been made up to a total of almost 150 tanks, to smash the DAK—now reduced to just thirty-seven tanks—by a frontal assault designed to retake the area of Deir el Shein, after which it would turn north to cut the coast road that fed the Axis rear. In making these decisions, Gott demonstrated that he had not entirely lost his old opportunistic fighting instincts; yet by his apparently resigned and unquestioning acceptance of Alexander’s brutally simplistic “stand firm” order, he once again offered evidence to historians that he was tired. Very tired.

If a sharper team had been available to tide the 8th Army through the battle of Alamein, the final result might well have been different, but both parts of Gott’s plan for July 2 turned out to be badly misjudged. In the first place, Rommel made the shrewd analysis that the plight of the 90th Light Division near the coast was not in fact the key issue that it at first seemed. He was prepared to leave it without fuel and unsupported (except by the Italian “Trento” Division) as a “gambit” to absorb the attention of the British artillery and reserves. Meanwhile, he correctly identified the more southerly allied boxes as the true schwerpunkt, so he sent most of the DAK and the remaining Italian forces against them. At the same time, in order to cover his center and the continuing mopping up at Deir el Shein, he left a strong force of infantry, artillery, and antitank guns to hold that position. This force successfully absorbed the eventual attack by Lumsden’s 1st Armored Division, while the DAK’s own armor completed the investment of the two infantry boxes at Bab el Quattara and Naqb Abu Dweis.

Lumsden committed the classic 8th Army error of sending the tanks of the 22nd Armored Brigade forward against unsuppressed antitank guns, while his preliminary artillery barrage fell in the wrong place. The tanks were badly mauled and made no progress against the enemy position. Meanwhile the 4th Armored Brigade suffered from all the usual problems of soft sand and poor radio communication, together with a certain unacknowledged “combat shyness,” with the result that it penetrated only a little way into the notional enemy “front line” and failed to find any significant enemy force to attack. By the end of the day, the 1st Armored Division had achieved practically nothing, but had seen its 150 tanks fall to a total of about ninety, of which only one squadron was still operating the famous American Grants.

Meanwhile, Nehring’s DAK, with Rommel motoring at its head, had failed to overrun the 6th New Zealand Brigade in its first attack on Bab el Quattara, but it succeeded in surrounding and masking it with what remained of the Brescia Division and the Italian XX Armored Corps. The German armor then pushed on relentlessly farther to the south, and by a felicitous mixture of speed, surprise, and shock action managed to pull off a brilliant coup de main against the 9th Indian Brigade at Naqb Abu Dweis, which was overrun in classic style. By nightfall the DAK was encamped on the lip of the Quattara Depression and had effectively turned the flank of the 8th Army’s supposedly “flankless” position. It had also destroyed or neutralized almost 40 percent of the effective allied fighting strength and—still more precious to the new German field marshal—it had captured a large convoy of fuel wagons intact.

On the morning of July 3, Rommel again had his men up and moving early, heading northeast directly toward the rear elements of the New Zealand Division and the remnants of the 7th Armored Division. He was relieved to note that ever since he had moved inland away from the distinctive coast road, he was able to enjoy the anonymity of the trackless desert and could therefore be located far less readily by allied airpower. As for the concentrated artillery that had stymied the 90th Light Division on the Alamein perimeter, it had remained stolidly in place, and only small mobile artillery columns remained in contact with the DAK itself; more a nuisance than a serious threat. The only stiff resistance the Germans encountered came from the New Zealand Division box at Deir el Munassib, which had to be surrounded, masked, and immobilized in the same manner that 6th New Zealand Brigade had been on the previous day. A significant part of its essential transport was cut off and destroyed, leaving its infantry stranded until it could be relieved by the main British armored striking force.

On the “fireworks day” of July 4, the Germans were poised and ready to beat off precisely such a relief attempt. They had reorganized themselves and set up an antitank ambush along the line of the prominent Alam Nayil ridge, which ran east to west on a line some four miles north of the beleaguered New Zealanders. With horrible predictability, Lumsden’s armor duly arrived from the north around noon, and attacked directly into the sun. The result was a turkey shoot in which the twenty remaining German tanks did not need to participate at all. The lurking 50mm and 88mm guns were sufficient to pick off over half the attackers before they retired back to the Ruweisat Ridge from which they had started, leaving only a few medical Dingoes and tracked carriers to pick up the wounded. At 1600, Rommel ordered the pursuit to start, but not due north into the heavily defended Ruweisat area. Instead, he would use his last fuel reserves to drive east-northeast to seize the crucial Alam el Haifa feature, which dominated the deep rear of the British and from which a shrewd artilleryman could even lob a 105mm shell straight onto Gott’s HQ caravan at El Imayid. By nightfall all this had indeed been achieved, and to all intents and purposes the decisive Battle of Alamein had been won.

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