While General Alexander was busy laying down his inflexible policy for fighting and dying in the front line—a doctrine that was, alas, all too literally obeyed—the news of Rommel’s advances was spreading far, wide, and fast throughout the Nile delta. Many Commonwealth civilians hastened to make their way out of the area: to Palestine, Khartoum, or, most popular of all, to find a ship to South Africa from Suez.
Equally, the military authorities took a hard look at their policy for demolitions and the preparation of the delta area for defense. In view of Alexander’s determination to fight only at Alamein, however, the official policy remained one of outward calm and business as usual. Nothing was done to build additional pontoon bridges to assist the army’s retreat, to fire demolitions, flood the salt pans around Alexandria to delay the enemy, or even to dig defensive trenches across the coast road in the area of Amiriya. Such measures were deemed to be bad for morale, and it was morale-building that Alexander still saw as his main task. He also ordered that an effort be made to halt the civilian evacuations, although that could never be applied in more than a halfhearted way, and little noticeable effect was observed. Nor could anything be done about the Egyptian government, which was technically neutral and apparently ready to make its own separate peace with the invader. Axis flags began to be seen in the streets; prices started to rise, and there was a marked increase in back-street attacks on Europeans.
In the port of Alexandria, the naval authorities had always demanded regular updates on the motoring time between Rommel and themselves. When he arrived in front of Alamein, it was set at twelve hours, rising to eighteen when he was thought to be bogged down inland, engaging the New Zealanders and the British armor. Toward the end of July 4, however, the news that he was on the Alam el Haifa ridge caused a sudden downward revision of the estimated time to just four hours. At that point Adm. Sir Henry Harwood, CinC Mediterranean Fleet, told Alexander bluntly that he could maintain the “business as usual” policy no longer, and that a program of demolitions to be activated, regardless of the effect on morale, in order to prevent the base facilities and dockyards from falling into enemy hands. They represented the most important naval installations in the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean, and could potentially be decisively valuable to both the powerful Italian fleet and its vital convoys supplying the Axis ground forces at the front. General Alexander was not yet ready to accept that the situation was desperate enough for the docks to be destroyed, and he pointed out that it would take many months to restore them to working order. But he discovered that his personal authority was insufficient to overrule the fixed will of the Royal Navy, which was, after all, the “senior service.”
Alexandria’s harbor was closed by block ships and its dockyards dynamited during the fire-filled night of July 4-5, which unfortunately coincided with the first flood of fugitives coming in from the desert battle. They represented the start of yet another 8th Army “flap,” or “gold rush,” which were the names given to a particular type of informal maneuver when all shapes and sizes of vehicles drove rapidly eastward without any order or organization. Such events had become depressingly common in recent weeks, although this was the first occasion when one of them had arrived as far east as the delta base area. It was no longer a private operation taking place in the open desert, witnessed only by other front-line troops, but a public display in a built-up area, of what to the uninitiated looked very much like blind panic.
The effect on the civilian population, and on the equally large population of rear echelon base personnel, was electric. Mechanics and fitters who had previously been repairing vehicles to send forward to Alamein now jumped into them and started to motor eastward to Port Said or south toward Cairo. Wherever they went, they spread rumors of chaos and defeat. Many subordinate officers took their own decisions to burn sensitive documents, initiate demolitions, or open sluices to create inundations as obstacles in the path of Panzerarmee Afrika. These measures also, of course, created obstacles to the retreating fugitives, and a series of gigantic traffic jams had built up by dawn. They could not possibly be missed by the routine Luftwaffe reconnaissance patrols, which duly called in successive waves of Stukas and Savoia-Marchettis, adding death and mayhem to the existing self-imposed destruction and panic.
On July 5 the RAF was still able to mobilize a strong screen of defensive fighters, operating comfortably within their own airspace almost directly above their base airfields. They exacted a heavy toll on the lumbering enemy bombers, with claims amounting to eighteen definites and eleven possibles; although five of their own number were shot down by the ever-dangerous Messerschmitt 109s. This stalwart defense could not be maintained for long, however, since the RAF was already reviewing the vulnerability of its landing grounds in the same way the navy had already looked at its port facilities. An air redeployment to the canal zone and Palestine was initiated at 1330, although much of its transport rapidly became mired in the general confusion of traffic and refugees, with the overall result that many sorties were lost.
As for the army, July 5 was a day of which the New Zealanders would be justly proud, since they doggedly beat off a series of ferocious attempts to reduce their two boxes. Farther to the rear, events went much less well. Gott’s 8th Army HQ had been disrupted by shelling at dusk on the July 4 and hastily removed itself farther to the east, losing contact with many of its vehicles in the dark. It was not until 0300 on Sunday, July 56 that Gott was able to issue his next set of army orders, which thus arrived too late for units to launch counterattacks at dawn. In essence he wanted to concentrate all available armor, mobile forces, and reserve columns against the DAK on Alam el Haifa ridge, but when Rommel launched his own attack first, the British columns were committed piecemeal and defeated in detail. By noon the Germans were firmly astride the coast road well to the rear of El Imayid, where they found extensive supply dumps. Yet again their fuel shortage was solved in the nick of time courtesy of the British Empire. They also found a large mass of invaluable motor transport, as well as a large park of partially repaired tanks that the tireless DAK maintenance teams would quickly restore to fighting order.
All allied formations farther to the west were now effectively cut off, and faced with an unpalatable choice between surrender and attempting to slip through the lines of their besiegers. In every case the second option was preferred, and a series of fighting breakouts was launched soon after darkness fell, though in many cases the attempt was unsuccessful. Many confused battles were fought during the night, with dawn on July 6 revealing that all the infantry boxes had been evacuated, but some 8,000 South Africans and New Zealanders had passed into captivity. The remainder were scattered all over the desert and moving in small groups, either on foot or on wheels, in the same general direction as the victorious German and Italian columns. At the head of the pack rode Rommel himself, now totally committed to a flat-out race to Alexandria, and safe in the knowledge that the RAF could no longer distinguish his ragged dust-caked vehicles from those of the 8th Army. All were mixed together in an incoherent mass that normally seemed to be more worried by traffic congestion than with maintaining hostilities.
The first truckloads of Panzergrenadiers entered the suburbs of Alexandria at 1100, but encountered little organized opposition apart from what even the official history would call Brigadier A.H.L. Godfrey’s “motley force” around Amiriya. During the afternoon the Germans pushed on into the city center, with a few sharp firefights but more of a sullen acceptance of defeat by service personnel who had never thought of themselves as front-line troops, let alone as cannon fodder. Beyond those there was an equally resigned acceptance among the local population, meticulously schooled by centuries of experience, toward whichever rudely invading army happened to be passing through at the time. Meanwhile, Gott was desperately trying to gather a coherent fighting force farther inland, although he was seriously hampered by the catastrophic dispersion and confusion throughout his command. As for Alexander, he had returned to GHQ in Cairo to cope with a contingency that until then he had tried to deny was even a possibility.
Apart from Gott’s remnants, what could still be rescued, now that Alexandria had fallen into enemy hands? There was actually a substantial reserve scattered around the area, with its more battleworthy elements forming “Delta Force,” commanded by the same Gen. Holmes who had failed to defend Mersa Matruh. Perhaps his most solid bastion was formed by General Sir Leslie Morshead’s 9th Australian Division blocking the approaches to Cairo—ably reinforced by such distinguished warrior bands as an upgunned Greek police battalion left over from Crete, a Basuto artillery regiment, and the GHQ “Officer Cadet Training Unit,” which was delighted to be excused from lectures for the duration of the crisis. Also refitting in the same area were the 50th Division and 10th Indian Division, both of which had been badly battered at Matruh. Behind these were many more units located in various camps along the canal, especially toward its southern end where new arrivals from overseas were groggily finding their bearings after disembarkation at the port of Suez. Among the more experienced combat elements were the 2nd and 8th Armored Brigades, in the process of being composed from a number of shattered tank regiments; the 161st Indian Motor Brigade, just in from Iraq, and a skeleton the 2nd Free French Brigade Group. On paper there should have been the best part of 1,100 tanks, although only a very small percentage were in any state to fight, even if they had not already fallen into enemy hands around Alexandria.
Rommel was also receiving reinforcements of his own, not least in the shape of captured British fuel, guns, tanks, and an esoteric variety of specialist equipments ranging from experimental mine flails to the much admired “Mammoth” armored command vehicles. Some 2,000 individual German reinforcements were airlifted in from Crete by July 5, soon to be followed by the 164th Light “Afrika” Division and then, toward the end of the month, the “Ramcke” Paratroop Brigade—which was surely as happy to have been spared the dangerous task of jumping onto Malta as Rommel was happy to add them to his own order of battle in Egypt. All these were accompanied by an even greater number of Italian reinforcements, not least the “Folgore” Parachute Division, also relieved from duty in Malta, as well as the preeminent figure of Il Duce himself.
Benito Mussolini had been hovering in Cyrenaica since June 29, complete with a handsome white horse and appropriately imperial trappings, and he now came forward to El Imayid in readiness for the final triumphal entry into Cairo. However, he quickly fell into a blazing argument with Rommel when the Desert Fox let slip that he had no intention of going to Cairo at all, but was going to let it “wither on the vine” while he pushed on eastward to Port Said. The German staff analysis was that the British had concentrated their strongest defensive position around the militarily irrelevant capital city, thereby leaving proportionally less to cover the vital high road into Asia. There would thus be no new “Battle of the Pyramids,” but a far more telling strategic thrust across the canal and then—who could tell?—onward to link hands with the victorious German armies coming through southern Russia. As always, the Italian objections were quickly overruled by reference back to Hitler, and Mussolini had to rest content with an almost triumphant parade through Alexandria, after which he took himself away to Rome in a very angry mood.
Not even Rommel, however, was ready to continue his eastward thrust after such a breathless gallop from Gazala to the Nile. He was now ready for a logistic pause to digest his prizes, gather his forces, and study his next move. In particular he needed to bring forward the infrastructure of his air force, in the hope of regaining local parity with the RAF and hence a greater level of security for the vital sea supply lanes from Italy. He also now found a need for one item that had been distinctly unnecessary in the arid wastes of the western desert—a pontoon train for crossing the branches of the Nile, and the Suez Canal itself. His engineers set about collecting small boats that could be put to this use, and won an unexpected golden bonus when they discovered a large store of British bridging material hidden amid the almost endless warren of base facilities in the region of Amiriya.
Meanwhile, General Alexander, having at last abandoned his reluctance to contemplate further retreats, ordered hasty staff studies for a double withdrawal: northeastward into Palestine, and south up the Nile toward the Sudan. A major difficulty was that the two routes were divergent and would split the army in the face of a centrally positioned enemy, but it had to be accepted that the basic geography of Egypt nevertheless made such an outcome inevitable. The truly awkward political dilemma was to know which of the two lines of retreat should be given the main priority. In the Mehemet Ali Club in Cairo the overwhelming opinion was naturally strongly in favor of concentrating maximum effort on defending Cairo, which was considered the real jewel in the crown of the British Empire in the Middle East. By contrast, in Alexander’s HQ, and beyond that in Whitehall and Downing Street, the main concern was the oilfields of Iraq. Not only was the oil vital to the British war effort, but the Axis powers were known to be suffering badly from an acute oil shortage. It would therefore not be hard to predict that the side that eventually possessed Iraq would also be the side that won the war.
Alexander believed he could fight on both fronts equally, especially since Churchill kept reminding him that he had two-thirds of a million men and “1,100 tanks” under his command, and the Axis troops in Alexandria could not have numbered many more than 10,000 men and were last seen running only the proverbial “twenty tanks.” Everyone at GHQ was confident that a solid defense on all fronts was perfectly feasible, especially since it was estimated that Rommel could not resume his advance before mid-August at the earliest. Signal intercepts revealed that his scheduled reinforcements would not all have arrived until about then, so it was assumed he would not dare to attack until they had all been fully incorporated in his force. Plans were duly made for a preemptive counterattack upon him with four armored brigades, to be launched on August 5, under the code name “Operation Locust.” It was only a troublesome group of pessimistic desert veterans, led by Gott himself, who rocked the boat by pointing out how often in the past GHQ had overestimated the time Rommel needed to regroup. Alexander, who had not personally experienced those occasions, replied that optimism and belief in victory were the key requirements at this delicate phase. The preparations continued according to the GHQ timetable, regardless of Gott’s objections.
Sure enough, however, Rommel did strike first, on the night of July 27-28, in Operation Zauberteppich (“Magic Carpet”). Parties of Ramcke and Folgore paratroops took the lead, in what was the first major operational night drop of the war. They unrolled an “airborne carpet” eastward across the various waterway and branches of the Nile, similar to the one unrolled in Holland in 1940 over the Maas, Waal, and Lek. This concept involved seizing key bridges before they could be blown, or key crossing points where they had been, and then holding onto them tenaciously until a heavy spearhead of the 15th Panzer Division, with combat engineers well forward, could arrive overland and either cross directly or lay a pontoon bridge. It was judged too ambitious to attempt a drive all the way through to the Suez Canal itself, 100 miles distant, which might have been “a bridge too far.” Even without that, the operation was already very ambitious, and frankly lucky to succeed as well as it did. All key objectives were secured by the paratroops soon after dawn; the British were visibly taken by surprise; and the remainder of the airborne carpet had been fully unrolled by the evening of July 28. Then came the battle of the bridgehead (officially known as the “Battle of the Nile Delta”), as Rommel hastened to consolidate his winnings against counterattacks and also, still more important, to rush forward the main body of the DAK, now respectably rebuilt to a tank strength of 190. Almost half of the tanks were captured Matildas, Grants, and Valentines, which were the only British types considered worth running.
Meanwhile, Rommel had strengthened his defenses south and west of Alexandria with a line of Italian infantry positions stiffened by Luftwaffe antiaircraft units manning the remarkably large total of 36 British 3.7-inch antiaircraft guns that had been captured. These guns were actually ballistically superior to the equivalent German 88mm piece, but it had always been a tenet of British belief that they were best used to protect the Alexandria naval base and airfields against air attack, rather than to hunt Panzers in the desert. Now that he had captured Alexandria’s stock of 3.7s, however, Rommel was easily able to convert them for use against tank attack, in the habitual German manner.
July 29 was a day of heavy battle, but the unexpected timing, direction, and speed of the attack caught the British armor dispersed and unprepared. As so often in the past, it came in uncoordinated and piecemeal, suffering all the disadvantages of being forced into a tactical offensive after the Germans had grabbed the operational initiative. The newly arrived 23rd Armored Brigade put up a particularly disappointing performance when it attempted to attack Alexandria from the west, and fell foul of a well-organized Pakfront. The Australian infantry and artillery that tried to follow up by seizing Amiriya during the following night fared considerably better, but were eventually pinned down and forced to withdraw next morning, when the “Ariete” Armored Division threatened a counterattack. Nearer to the schwerpunkt around El Mansoura, some sixty miles farther to the east, better results were achieved by the 2nd and 8th Armored Brigades, supported by the Free French Brigade. They too were eventually ground down by the concentrated might of the DAK, but not without a hard fight during which Rommel twice believed he would have to retreat. As for the 1st Armored Division, it scarcely managed to engage at all, and scatological opinions over who should take the blame varied colorfully between “badly trained junior officers,” Lumsden, Gott, and even Alexander himself.
After the battle of the Nile Delta, Rommel paused briefly to reassemble his forces and bridging pontoons, before he was ready to strike onward across the Suez Canal. He always had to guard against fresh attacks from the Cairo flank to his south, which absorbed a large proportion of his available infantry and artillery, but this still left him with the core of the DAK available for mobile operations toward the east. He selected a suitable bridging point about 35 miles south of Port Said, between El Quantara and Ismailia, and prepared a formal “river-crossing” operation according to the classical rules of military science. Nevertheless he now believed that he had finally broken the backbone of the opposition, and resistance would gradually but inevitably collapse, provided he could continue to maintain a high level of onward pressure.
The crossing went ahead smoothly on the night of August 7-8, following an extensive bombardment from artillery, tank guns and bombers. The front-line troops established their bridgehead without difficulty on the Asian side, but they were fascinated to find that the “opposition” had (perhaps appropriately) consisted of no more than a colony of unarmed Chinese laborers employed by the canal company, whose distinctively decorated barrack block was immediately nicknamed “Chinese Villa”—a name that subsequently came to designate the battle as a whole.
Once the Germans were across the canal, they immediately sensed that the military threat to them had dramatically lightened. They were loose in a new continent, and free to roam north and south, to surround the naval base at Port Said from the east and pick off the many dispersed outposts of canal defense troops at will. Provoking particular amusement was the discovery of a squadron of tracked and armored “canal defense lights” that had apparently been designed by the respected British tank expert (and friend of Adolf Hitler) J.F.C. Fuller, but which on close inspection turned out to be militarily useless, and actually laughable. Their chassis were stripped of their innocuous searchlights and converted to carry more lethal cargo such as mortars and antitank guns, instead.
By this time the level of moral supremacy enjoyed by the Germans had risen by several vital pegs. The trickle of civilian refugees hastening out of Cairo had grown to a flood. The docks at Suez had become permanently choked with traffic, and the Egyptian population was increasingly releasing its formerly repressed hostility to the British. In the air, the RAF was still capable of winning some spectacular victories, but in general its fighting efficiency was wilting away, day by day. The loss of the Alexandria base area had been a fatal blow to the continuity and coherence of air operations, and the atmosphere of crisis around Cairo had produced other problems. Though all the military HQs continued to operate calmly and professionally, after the failure of so many of their battle plans, the British could not avoid a deeply frustrating feeling that they always seemed to be getting something wrong and were incapable of working out exactly what it was. The mood in GHQ was somber, and even Alexander’s confidence and the knowledge that major reinforcements were on the way—including 300 of the latest Sherman tanks from the United States—could not convince them that the best future plan was a successful offensive to the north rather than a humiliating retreat to the south.
In these circumstances, Rommel found he was well able to hold the 8th Army and the Cairo command in check while the DAK crossed the Sinai desert and made daring new thrusts deep into the effectively undefended 9th Army area in Palestine. His armored spearheads managed to enter Jerusalem as early as August 15, despite a spirited (albeit incongruously multifaith) resistance offered by combined elements of the Arab Legion, the Jewish Haganah, a brigade of Indian infantry, and squads of the British Palestine Police Force, who hailed mainly from the Presbyterian quarters of central Belfast. However, all attempts at defense ultimately proved to be in vain, and the city fell entirely under Axis control by dusk the following day. Rommel was then able to make another logistic pause, consolidating his forces and extending his hold over the surrounding areas, during which he was gratified to receive additional air, infantry, and logistic reinforcements from Germany. But he was considerably less amused to learn that a special SS detachment was also being sent to “help him with Jewish relations.”
It was perhaps no accident that the Axis pause during late August coincided with some major Allied reevaluations. In the first place, Churchill’s proposed visit to Moscow, intended to consolidate interallied relations, was brusquely cancelled by Stalin, who was disgusted that the British could apparently no longer guarantee his southern flank—nor even the flow of Lend-Lease supplies through Persia. Historians have often suggested that this was the decisive moment when, to all intents and purposes, the Second World War was lost by the Allies.
Secondly, the Anglo-American armada destined to arrive in Morocco and Algeria in November had to be radically rejigged, since it was now obvious that North Africa had become a definitively Axis-controlled zone. Apart from anything else, it was known that the Germans had seized secret files in Alexandria that revealed the whole plan, with the result that any possibility of surprise was lost. Half of the invasion flotilla was therefore rerouted to Britain, to increase the invasion forces preparing to invade France in some indeterminate future; while the other half, including Eisenhower’s and Patton’s tactical HQs, was sent by the long sea route via South Africa to Suez. The intent was that these forces would turn the tide in Egypt, but alas, by the time they arrived the whole situation had taken a serious turn for the worse, and they had to be forwarded yet again—this time to Burma, where their arrival was mirthfully hailed as a near-circumnavigation of the globe.
The final act in the Middle Eastern drama began in early September, when the DAK again lunged forward, this time against Gen. “Jumbo” Maitland Wilson’s 10th Army in Iraq. Once again it encountered a defensive force that was morally enthusiastic but institutionally disorganized and badly coordinated. The 31st Indian Armored Division, for example, ought to have put up a gallant resistance, except for the inconvenient fact that it possessed no actual tanks. Equally the individual infantry battalions of the XXI Indian Corps each fought well, but there were no corps troops or central artillery reserve to support them, and no coherent defensive plan sufficient to cope with the scale and shock of the German onslaught. Even so, it became a hard and grueling campaign, concluded only on October 23, when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was finally able to send his decisive last telegram to Berlin that stated: “Baghdad & all oil fields now in hands Panzerarmee Afrika.”
Within the hour he was at long last free to relax, and to board a plane home for two months’ well-earned leave with his dear wife Lu.
All the military events recounted up to and including July 1 occurred exactly as described, with the single exception of the high command arrangements on the British side. Auchinleck’s offer of resignation on June 23 was not in fact accepted, so Alexander was left free to continue his onward journey to Britain. Auchinleck then took personal command of the 8th Army and fought a highly flexible and ultimately successful defensive battle at Alamein, only to be sacked on August 8 after he failed to convert that significant victory into a successful counteroffensive. Auchinleck’s reputation was tainted by the suspicion that his “flexibility” meant he was ready to continue the retreat not only back to Cairo, but even—and this was the particularly shocking thing to the lounge lizards at the Gezira tennis club—that he was ready to abandon Cairo itself. He had tolerated the mass burning of secret documents on “Ash Wednesday,” July 1, which suggested a readiness to evacuate, and it helped generate panic. Therefore when Alexander was made CinC ME in August, he had to make it clear that there would be “no more retreats,” and many regretted that this had not been spelled out much earlier. As for Strafer Gott, he was designated to take over the 8th Army at the same time, but his Bombay aircraft was shot down and he was killed before he could take up the post, which then fell to one of Brooke’s self-important cronies from England.
From July 2 on, the real First Battle of Alamein was fought very differently from the fictitious description. In my version Rommel turned south against two exposed British brigade boxes, when in fact both of those brigades had already been withdrawn farther to the east, as a result of Auchinleck’s realism and readiness to maneuver. Rommel was actually defeated when he reinforced failure by turning to help the 90th Light Division in the north. However, if Alexander had been in charge, instead of the Auk, we may speculate that British tenure of the front line would have been rigid and unbending, out of a misplaced and potentially disastrous belief in the later revisionist 8th Army propaganda line that Auchinleck’s willingness to contemplate a further retreat was corrosive of morale throughout Egypt and all the military forces.