Rommel’s original plan for 2 July was to persevere with the previous day’s operation, but when 90th Light failed to make progress he switched Afrika Korps from its southerly sweep to curve to the north, in company with Littorio, and then diverge left and right. XXI Corps was to keep up its battering of the Alamein Box, and the attack on southerly British positions was to be taken over by XX Corps.
90th Light gained only a few hundred metres on 2 July before the South Africans’ crescent of fire stopped it. Afrika Korps managed a few kilometres before a chance encounter with 22nd Armoured Brigade. 4th Armoured Brigade, to the south west, turned back to help. XXI Corps made a tentative stab again at the Alamein Box, but no other Italian units stirred. The New Zealanders sent out a mobile column, but it made no contact with the enemy. 1st South Arican Brigade withdrew a short distance.
As first light touched the desert south of the Alamein Box the men of Rommel’s 90th Light, bone weary, dragged themselves from their slit trenches and from beneath trucks, shivering off the cool of the night as they ate a little breakfast and looked with watchful apprehension around the empty landscape. The fire storm of the previous day had passed, and they were alone again in dusty space, a place without identity, a land that was nowhere, where the only shadows were their own as the sun formed a ball on the eastern horizon.
By 5.00am they were on their way again, jolting east, hunched in tired resignation as the anonymous distance slipped away beyond the tailboard. Their objective was the same as yesterday – to encircle the Alamein Box by driving through to the coast. There was no artillery preparation. Was there any artillery? The engines of the trucks whirred in the silence as they lurched across rocky ground or strained through silt-like sand. Already the heat was closing in, and dust rising from the wheels.
A kilometre goes by, two. And then the soft sibilant moan of incoming shells and the crash of their arrival. A torrent of men flows over the tailboards and melts into the ground, each form flattened into crucified fear as the deluge descends. There’s a shout to get moving, and as the bodies rise, hammering machine guns sweep the ranks. They fall to the ground again, the living and the dead together.
At Panzerarmee headquarters the staff officers fretfully await reports. Communications are tenuous in 1942: radios are heavy, cumbersome and temperamental; telephone wires laid on the ground are apt to be severed by vehicles or gunfire; runners are cut down or become lost. Once infantry disappear into the sound and fury of battle they are lost to their commanders, except for whatever meagre news might filter back.
One thing is clear: only 90th Light is engaged. The tanks of Afrika Korps, denied replenishment of fuel and ammunition during the night hours by the RAF, are stationary in Deir el Shein. Tantalisingly, the desert in front of them is open, now. No strong points lie between them and their intended sweep to the south, and given supplies they could be rolling unimpeded through the defenceless rear echelons of the Eighth Army, curving down to strike from the rear. But they must wait.
Time ticks by, and at last at 7.30am a report to Army HQ. 90th Light can’t advance because it faces ‘strong artillery and machine gun fire’. What’s happening out there in the desert? At 11.00am Rommel learns that the division is still pinned down but will resume the advance, shifting the emphasis to the right wing after the army artillery has softened up the enemy. Perhaps he believes this because he wants to. Or perhaps he recognises futile hope. Perhaps the next message at 1.30pm is no surprise. The artillery has gone and the attack has been called off. The infantry of 90th Light are on their own, impotent in the face of scything enemy fire.
Rommel considers his map and the forces at his disposal. Afrika Korps is still in hand, not yet launched to the south. And there are Italians in several varieties not yet committed to battle. He must eliminate the Alamein Box, which blocks the coast road and rail and is a standing threat to any movement further south. He forms his plan. He will push through to the coast in an arc, using a laminate of forces. 90th Light will have the inside running in a wide left wheel that will enclose the box. Littorio will be on a parallel course on its right, and on the outside, on Littorio’s right, will be Afrika Korps. When Afrika Korps reaches the coast it will reconnoitre down the road to the east to see what dangers might lurk there and at the same time ‘make contact’ with 90th Light, which, all going well, should reach the coast some little distance to the west. Then it will be a matter of driving west astride the road and railway across the top of the Alamein Box, opening the way to where Italian troops on the west side are dug in after a further ineffective attack that morning.
But the sweep to the south will go ahead, too. This will now be an Italian task. XX Corps (less Littorio) whose job had been to pursue the fleeing Eighth Army when the Alamein defences collapsed, will pick up Afrika Korps’ original assignment and encircle 13th Corps. X Corps (Brescia, Pavia) will secure Mreir Depression with Brescia and Pavia Divisions to guard against a strike against the German flank by 13th Corps, which, as it happens, is what Auchinleck is planning.
It is all very thorough, very professional, very Rommel. It is also fantasy.
Auchinleck was in fact planning a counter-attack from the south, a scheme code-named Latton. He knew through Ultra just what the enemy plan for the previous day had been, and he deduced correctly that on this second day Rommel would push on again to try to cut off the Alamein Box. At midday he ordered 30th Corps in the north to prevent any enemy advance eastwards, and told 1st Armoured Division and New Zealand Division, in 13th Corps in the south, to ‘destroy the enemy wherever he is met and to attack his flank and rear’. 30th Corps on this second day consisted of the three South African Brigades that the previous day had halted 90th Light and presumably could do so again, covered now on the flank on Ruweisat Ridge by a 10th Indian Division formation called Robcol made up of two batteries of Royal Horse Artillery, the 11th Field Regiment RA, and 1/4th Essex Regiment, assisted by four New Zealand batteries. Ranged behind the South Africans were columns of 50th Division, giving more reassuring depth to the defences. The way through was even more perilous for the attackers than it had been the day before.
To deliver the flank attack on the enemy, 1st Armoured Division was to move south west to Kaponga, where tanks would refuel before turning north to strike.
In their intentions at least, the two sides were like free-for-all fighters, their sight blurred by swollen eyes, circling each other, swaying and jabbing, trying to get in a blow at a vulnerable spot.
The first moves on the British side were made by the New Zealand Division and by 1st Armoured.
The New Zealanders, alerted that they might be needed, sent out two columns made up of artillery, machine-guns, anti-tank guns, carriers and infantry from 4th and 5th Brigades, which had been waiting at Munassib for just such a contingency. The columns merged at Alam Nayal, and for a good deal of the day manoeuvred around without making any direct contact with the enemy, though they shelled tanks seen advancing over the western edge of Ruweisat Ridge. The day’s main diversion was to observe with incredulity crews of British tanks in evening laager dismounting in a drill movement.
1st Armoured Division was not quite ready for action as the day began. 22nd Brigade was in place, but the hapless 4th Brigade had arrived in position only at first light, after spending yet another night dragging its wheeled vehicles out of soft sand. So while Afrika Korps fretted in Deir el Shein, 4th Armoured Brigade men, who must by now have been almost asleep on their feet, re-established some sort of order. Both brigades were ordered to move south west to Kaponga Box, and then turn north to strike at the Axis flank.
While this was going on, preparations were in hand on the Axis side for the new triple assault in the north, and at 3.30pm the German artillery began a barrage. At four, the attacking formations moved forward. 90th Light ran into a shower of mortar bombs and shells and went to ground again after an advance of only 400 metres. Littorio, which was supposed to be moving up on its right, did not even stir. On the west face of the Alamein Box, where Trento Division and 7th Bersaglieri were to make another assault, shelling dowsed what little enthusiasm there was for the task.
Only Afrika Korps made progress. Released at last, the panzers lumbered east along Ruweisat Ridge, unopposed. And then, five kilometres on, a curtain of fire descended.
Such is the tunnel vision of participants in a battle that they are aware of little else but their own struggle, and while historians generally – perhaps erroneously – say British armour stopped the panzers that day, the gunners of the Royal Artillery claim credit. Specifically it was the 11th Field Regiment, the artillery component of the gun-based Robcol, who engaged the panzers, assisted by a battery of the 104th Royal Horse Artillery (Essex Yeomanry) and several anti-tank batteries. Robcol had been moved on to Ruweisat to fill the gap left by the fall of Deir el Shein, and from mid-morning on 2 July the guns needled at soft targets – anything that wasn’t a tank – in the depression, where the two panzer divisions were rearming and refuelling, attracting retaliatory counter-attacks by German infantry and tanks.
The real heat came on as the afternoon push got under way, and panzers and motorized infantry became established on higher ground overlooking the gun lines, and poured in shells and machine-gun fire.
‘It was a desperate situation,’ says an account in The Royal Artillery Commemoration Book. ‘But there could be no withdrawal; to fall back would lay open the road to Alexandria and Cairo.’(1)
The 22nd Armoured Brigade, with its attached Royal Horse Artillery, came up on the artillery left, fortuitously, as it happens. The brigade was beginning its south-westerly traverse when it collided, so to speak, with the battle, and as orders were to ‘destroy the enemy wherever he is met’ they joined in the fray, calling on 4th Armoured Brigade and New Zealand guns for help. The 4th Armoured Brigade, some distance in advance of the 22nd, had already refuelled at Kaponga and was turning north for the flank attack when the call came, and it turned back, losing four Valentines and four Grants in skirmishes on the way and making a wide loop to the south to escape the trap of a wadi covered by German guns.
Desperate as it all seemed from the British side, the Germans were no less discomforted. The panzer divisions sent back a cry for help to Nehring, and each called on the other for support, refusing to move unless there was a response. The result was a great deal of radio traffic but not a great deal of constructive effort. Korps headquarters had its own problems as bombers homed in.
Note from my diary for 2 July: ‘Later, battle broke out further north, and until dark the air rumbled continuously as tank fought tank and the guns poured in their share. From battalion HQ we could see a vast, smoke-shrouded plain to the north east, dotted with shadowy vehicles that to us moved as aimlessly as ants … Hot and flies provocative.’
As dusk came and the 4th Armoured Brigade caught up with the play, the panzers made their last attempt, some tanks penetrating to within ‘a few yards’ of the guns that had, so the gunners say, borne ‘the brunt of the tank assault’. Certainly the gunners had suffered seven officers and 80 other ranks killed out of an active complement of 300, and the battle stories include one of Bombardier Johnson who, though he had one arm shot away, continued to lay and fire, refusing all attention. He died two days later.
As darkness closed in the battle died down and the armour of both sides laagered for the night. The Germans had lost 11 more tanks in that engagement, leaving 21st Panzer with 20 and 15th Panzer with just six, though replacements were expected from the repair shops that night. The British had suffered losses, too, including seven Grants, and Afrika Korps offered itself the comfort that it had inflicted ‘heavy losses’ on its foe. There’s more than a hint of pleading in the diary’s reference to the troops having been in action day and night. ‘Signs of fatigue become evident among leaders and men,’ it noted.
Moreover, ‘continued (air) attacks by day and night harass our troops very much; nothing is to be seen of our fighter protection’.
90th Light noted gloomily in its war diary that there was ‘nothing to indicate that the enemy is considering withdrawing. On the contrary, the impression is created that he intends to halt the assault of the German-Italian Africa Army in front of the Alamein line with all the forces at his disposal.’
Wistfully it goes on, ‘The German units, badly exhausted through the heavy fighting and hardships (day and night marches) during the preceding days and weeks, do not seem able to take this last fortress of the English in front of the Nile Delta with the available forces.’
The diary records that every 20 or 30 minutes ‘Desert Air Force bombers, 15 to 20 at a time, fly over with fighter protection,’ and though this continuous bombing and low flying inflicted little actual damage on the dispersed fighting and supply units, the morale effect on the troops ‘is so much more important’.
‘Everyone prays for German fighter protection,’ the diary says, ‘knowing only too well that the German Air Force cannot advance so very quickly. Sometimes German fighters appear singly, greeted by the roaring applause of the troops, but naturally they are not in a position to attack such heavy formations.’
And what of the Italians, ‘the last hope’? X and XXI Infantry Corps and XX Motorised Corps, the diary observes, ‘have seen little action and are therefore more fit’.
‘However,’ it adds, ‘from such comrades there is little to be hoped.’
In fact, Italian units that were supposed to support 90th Light ‘neither fired a shot nor had they attacked, excusing this inaction with the words that they did not want to bring down enemy fire on themselves’.
By dusk on 2 July the Axis forces had again failed to break through the Alamein defences, but rather were snagged there, like an intruder caught in a thorn hedge.
The remarkable thing about all this is that the Eighth Army command seemed unaware that its positions had been assaulted in a desperate bid to break through to the coast road, and Auchinleck reported to London that night that ‘the expected attack had not developed by last night though some enemy tanks were seen’. This can hardly be true of the situation on Ruweisat Ridge, and 1st SA Brigade at least was well aware of being attacked. On the enemy side, the Italian perception was that their attack had been halted by ‘violent artillery fire’, and 90th Light said ‘concentrated fire of all enemy weapons’ and ‘strong artillery and machine-gun fire’ had barred their way forward ‘after several hours of embittered fighting’.
So far as the South Africans were concerned, only their 1st Brigade had suffered anything worth reporting, and the divisional war diary says: ‘Light shelling by both sides continues in morning, increasing considerably towards afternoon in 1st SA Brigade positions, and towards 1800 hours extremely heavy shelling of 1st SA Brigade position took place. GOC (Pienaar) and party visited 1st Brigade HQ during the barrage and could not move from slit trenches during whole period of stay of about three-quarters of an hour. The position of 1st Brigade was on hard and stony ground, and shelling was particularly effective.’
On top of all this, 1st Brigade endured two hours’ shelling by ‘friendly’ guns – whose is uncertain – and it was calculated that in the first two days of the Alamein battle between 15,000 and 20,000 shells fell in an area roughly 800 by 600 metres.