The Battle of El Alamein, fought in the deserts of North Africa, is seen as one of the decisive victories ofWorld War Two. The Battle of El Alamein was primarily fought between two of the outstanding commanders of World War Two, Montgomery, who succeeded the dismissed Auchinleck, and Rommel. The Allied victory at El Alamein lead to the retreat of the Afrika Korps and the German surrender in North Africa in May 1943.
Rommel studying maps during the battle at El Alamein
Hence the war in the desert of North Africa was pivotal. If the Afrika Korps got to the Suez Canal, the ability of the Allies to supply themselves would be severely dented. The only alternate supply route would be via South Africa – which was not only longer but a lot more dangerous due to the vagaries of the weather. The psychological blow of losing the Suez and losing in North Africa would have been incalculable – especially as this would have given Germany near enough free access to the oil in the Middle East.
El Alamein was a last stand for the Allies in North Africa. To the north of this apparently unremarkable town was the Mediterranean Sea and to the south was the Qattara Depression. El Alamein was a bottleneck that ensures that Rommel could not use his favoured form of attack – sweeping into the enemy from the rear. Rommel was a well respected general in the ranks of the Allies. The Allied commander at the time, Claude Auchinleck – did not command the same respect among his own men. Auchinleck had to send a memo to all his senior officers that ordered them to do all in their power to correct this:
In August 1942, Winston Churchill was desperate for a victory as he believed that morale was being sapped in Britain. Churchill, despite his status, faced the prospect of a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons if there was no forthcoming victory anywhere. Churchill grasped the bull by the horns./ he dismissed Auchinleck and replaced him with Bernard Montgomery. The men in the Allied forces respected ‘Monty’. He was described as “as quick as a ferret and about as likeable.” Montgomery put a great deal of emphasis on organisation and morale. He spoke to his troops and attempted to restore confidence in them. But above all else, he knew that he needed to hold El Alamein anyway possible.
Rommel planned to hit the Allies in the south. Montgomery guessed that this would be the move of Rommel as Rommel had done it before. However, he was also helped by the people who worked at Bletchley Park who had got hold of Rommel’s battle plan and had deciphered it. Therefore ‘Monty’ knew not only Rommel’s plan but also the route of his supply lines. By August 1942, only 33% of what Rommel needed was getting through to him. Rommel was also acutely aware that while he was being starved of supplies, the Allies were getting vast amounts through as they still controlled the Suez and were predominant in the Mediterranean. To resolve what could only become a more difficult situation, Rommel decided to attack quickly even if he was not well-equipped.
The Allies had placed a huge number of land mines south of El Alamein at Alam Halfa. German Panzer tanks were severely hit by these and the rest were held up and became sitting targets for Allied fighter planes that could easily pick off tank after tank. Rommel’s attack started badly and it seemed as if his Afrika Korps would be wiped out. He ordered his tanks north and he was then helped by nature. A sandstorm blew up which gave his tanks much needed cover from marauding British fighters. However, once the sandstorm cleared, Rommel’s force was hit by Allied bombers that pounded the area where the Afrika Corps had their tanks. Rommel had no choice but to retreat. He fully expected Montgomery’s Eighth Army to follow him as this was standard military procedure. However, ‘Monty’ failed to do this. He was not ready for an offensive and he ordered his men to stay put while they held a decisive defensive line.
To cope with Montgomery’s attack, the Germans had 110,000 men and 500 tanks. A number of these tanks were poor Italian tanks and could not match the new Sherman’s. The Germans were also short of fuel. The Allies had more than 200,000 men and more than 1000 tanks. They were also armed with a six-pound artillery gun which was highly effective up to 1500 metres. Between the two armies was the ‘Devil’s Garden’. This was a mine field laid by the Germans which was 5 miles wide and littered with a huge number of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Going through such a defence would prove to be a nightmare for the Allies.
To throw Rommel off the scent, Montgomery launched ‘Operation Bertram’. This plan was to convince Rommel that the full-might of the Eighth Army would be used in the south. Dummy tanks were erected in the region. A dummy pipeline was also built – slowly, so as to convince Rommel that the Allies were in no hurry to attack the Afrika Korps. ‘Monty’s army in the north also had to ‘disappear’. Tanks were covered so as to appear as non-threatening lorries. Bertram worked as Rommel became convinced that the attack would be in the south.
The start of the Allied attack on Rommel was code-named “Operation Lightfoot”. There was a reason for this. A diversionary attack in the south was meant to take in 50% of Rommel’s forces. The main attack in the north was to last – according to Montgomery – just one night. The infantry had to attack first. Many of the anti-tank mines would not be tripped by soldiers running over them – they were too light (hence the code-name). As the infantry attacked, engineers had to clear a path for the tanks coming up in the rear. Each stretch of land cleared of mines was to be 24 feet – just enough to get a tank through in single file. The engineers had to clear a five mile section through the ‘Devil’s Garden’. It was an awesome task and one that essentially failed. ‘Monty’ had a simple message for his troops on the eve of the battle:
The attack on Rommel’s lines started with over 800 artillery guns firing at the German lines. Legend has it that the noise was so great that the ears of the gunners bled. As the shells pounded the German lines, the infantry attacked. The engineers set about clearing mines. Their task was very dangerous as one mine was inter-connected with others via wires and if one mines was set off, many others could be. The stretch of cleared land for the tanks proved to be Montgomery’s Achilles heel. Just one non-moving tank could hold up all the tanks that were behind it. The ensuing traffic jams made the tanks easy targets for the German gunners using the feared 88 artillery gun. The plan to get the tanks through in one night failed. The infantry had also not got as far as Montgomery had planned. They had to dig in.
The second night of the attack was also unsuccessful. ‘Monty’ blamed his chief of tanks, Lumsden. He was given a simple ultimatum – move forward – or be replaced by someone more energetic. But the rate of attrition of the Allied forces was taking its toll. Operation Lightfoot was called off and Montgomery, not Lumsden, withdrew his tanks. When he received the news, Churchill was furious as he believed that Montgomery was letting victory go.
However, Rommel and the Afrika Korps had also been suffering. He only had 300 tanks left to the Allies 900+. ‘Monty’ next planned to make a move to the Mediterranean. Australian units attacked the Germans by the Mediterranean and Rommel had to move his tanks north to cover this. The Australians took many casualties but their attack was to change the course of the battle.
Rommel became convinced that the main thrust of Montgomery’s attack would be near the Mediterranean and he moved a large amount of his Afrika Korps there. The Australians fought with ferocity – even Rommel commented on the “rivers of blood” in the region. However, the Australians had given Montgomery room to manoeuvre.
He launched ‘Operation Supercharge’. This was a British and New Zealander infantry attack made south of where the Australians were fighting. Rommel was taken by surprise. 123 tanks of the 9th Armoured Brigade attacked the German lines. But a sandstorm once again saved Rommel. Many of the tanks got lost and they were easy for the German 88 gunners to pick off. 75% of the 9th Brigade was lost. But the overwhelming number of Allied tanks meant that more arrived to help out and it was these tanks that tipped the balance. Rommel put tank against tank – but his men were hopelessly outnumbered.
By November 2nd 1942, Rommel knew that he was beaten. Hitler ordered the Afrika Korps to fight to the last but Rommel refused to carry out this order. On November 4th, Rommel started his retreat. 25,000 Germans and Italians had been killed or wounded in the battle and 13,000 Allied troops in the Eighth Army.