November 6, 2010


(11/11) Battlefield II El Alamein Ep10 World War II    (03:42m)

In the First Battle of El Alamein, from July 1st to 27th, 1942,  Allied Forces  (Great Britain, British India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) under the command of Claude Auchinleck fought against the Axis. The First battle ended in a stalemate but it succeeded in halting the German advance on Alexandria and then Cairo and Suez Canal.  The British Eighth Army suffered over 13,000 casualties, the New Zealand Division 4,000, the 5th Indian Infantry Division 3,000, and the 9th Australian Division 2,552 casualties. But overall number of prisoners taken were 7,000 with heavy damages inflicted on Axis men and machinery.  In early August Winston Churchill replaced Auchinleck with Lieutenant-General William Gott. However, a Messerschmidtt intercepted the air transport carrying Gott, who was killed by enemy fire.  Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was appointed in his place. Rommel made a second attempt to break Allied positions but was repelled during the Battle of Alam Halfa in August. During the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, the Eighth Army decisively defeated the Axis forces.

The following contains only excerpts or highlights of a few of the battles.  It does not in any way represent a complete account of the First Battle of El Alamein and the Second Battle of El Alamein.   My apologies for the fragmentation.

In the early hours of July 1st, the German 90th Light Infantry Division spearheaded the attack but overextended its advance and were pinned down when it ran into the defense zone of the 1st South African Division. Attacks planned by the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions were delayed by a sandstorm, after which they were heavily bombed by Allied air attacks. By daylight, the Germans arrived in the area east of Deir el Abyad at Deir el Shein too late and were surprised to find it was already occupied by the Indian 18th Infantry Brigade.

By 10:00 hours the 21st Panzer Division attacked the 18th Indian Infantry Brigade at Deir el Shein. By evening, after a day of desperate fighting were able to overrun them. However, it bought the Allies time to reorganize its defence of the western part of Ruweisat Ridge.  Meanwhile the 1st Armoured Division was sent to intervene at Deir el Shein where they ran right into the 15th Panzer Division. By the end of the day's fighting the Germans lost a third of their tanks.

The British defence of Ruweisat Ridge code named Robcol, was heavily fortified by a regiment each of Field artillery and light anti-aircraft artillery and a company of infantry.  Two British armoured brigades joined the contingent with the 4th Armoured Brigade, and engaged the 15th Panzer and 22nd Armoured Brigade 21st Panzer in battle. They succeeded in driving the Germans back.  By evening,  Robcol was reinforced and was renamed Walgroup. Meanwhile, the RAF had been making heavy air attacks on Axis units.

The next day, enemy attack was renewed, led this time led by the Italian XX Motorised Corp. It was a clear indication that the Germans were weakening, its tanks now down to 26.  Although the Italian Ariete Armoured Division made good progress along Ruweisat Ridge, they were greatly outnumbered by British tanks of the 4 Armoured Brigade. By morning The Axis advance was halted by a combination of British artillery fire and air attacks. That day the RAF flew 780 sorties.

On the following day, the 2nd New Zealand Division supported by the 5th Indian Division and 7th Motor Brigade advanced north on German positions and encountered fierce artillery fire from the Ariete Armoured Division. The Ariete lost 531 men, 36 pieces of artillery, 6 or 8 tanks, and 55 trucks. At the end of the day they had only five tanks left. The RAF flew 900 sorties that day.

From July 8th the Allied and Axis units engaged in fierce battle for the capture of Tel el Eisa. But after seven days of fierce fighting, the battle in the north for Tel el Eisa salient petered out.  Both sides suffered heavy casualties. The 9th Australian Division estimated that at least 2,000 Axis troops had been killed and more than 3,700 taken prisoner. Despite the impasse, the Allies won a major victory in that the Australians had captured Signals Intercept Company 621. This unit had been providing Rommel with intelligence reports obtained from intercepted British radio communications.

The turning point came during the Second Battle of El Alamein which lasted from October 23 to November 5, 1942.  The Germans hoped to gain access to Middle Eastern oil fields by occupying Egypt and taking control of the Suez Canal.  Their hopes were ended.

The Second Battle of El Alamein was divided into five phases, consisting of the break-in (23–24 October), the crumbling (24–25 October), the counter (26–28 October), Operation Supercharge (1–2 November) and the breakout (3–7 November). No name is given to the period from 29–31 October, when the battle was at a standstill.

In this battle the 50th (Northumbrian) Division was initially deployed in the south, where it was to attack the Italian 185th Parachute Division Folgore. Since the unit was understrength, owing to the loss of the 150th Infantry Brigade, the 1st Free French Brigade and 1st Greek Brigade were attached to it. It was then transferred north to take part in Operation Supercharge.

The first phase began with the mission codenamed Operation Lightfoot.  Gunfire from all 882 Allied guns from Field and Medium batteries landed across the entire 40 mile front at the same time, and lasted for a period of about twenty minutes. The Allies then switched to precision targets in order to support their advancing infantry. After five and half hours, each battery had fired 600 shells. The moniker "Lightfoot" referred to the Allied infantrymen who ran across the anti-tank mine field.  They were too light to set off the mines, hence the name "Lightfoot". As the infantry advanced, engineers had to clear a path for the tanks coming behind. Each section of land cleared of mines had to be 24 ft (7.3 m) wide -  just wide enough for tanks to get through in single file.  The cleared area had to extend for a distance of five miles (8.0 km)  through the 'Devil’s Gardens' but could not be completed because of the depth of the Axis minefields.

(NB: In 1941,  Polish engineer and signals officer, Lt. Jozef Kosacki, stationed in Scotland, had designed a Mine Detector that was to be used for the first time in action. His design was accepted by British Command and five hundred of these were immediately sent to the British Eighth Army at El Alamein.  The Polish Metal Detectors doubled the speed at which heavily mined sands could be cleared, from around 100 to about 200 meters an hour. During the war more than 100,000 of these detectors were produced and used during the Allied invasion of Sicily, the Allied Invasion of Italy, and the Invasion of Normandy. In fact, the British army had used them up until 1995.

British Commonwealth infantry defensive position near El Alamein17 July 1942.

In phase two of the battle, Montgomery ordered that the northern corridor be cleared, and deployed the New Zealand Division (supported by 10th Armoured) to advance southward from Miteirya Ridge, while the 9th Australian Division in the north began planning for a crumbling operation. Meanwhile, the 7th Armoured was given the mission to try to break through the minefields with support from 44th Division.

Throughout the day Allied Forces made over 1,000 sorties attacking Axis positions with the objective of "crumbling" Axis forces. By late afternoon, little progress was made.

The first major tank battle began at dusk at El Alamein; Axis tanks from the 15th Panzer Division and Italian Littorio Divisions engaged the 1st Armoured Division in which over 100 tanks were involved. By dark, half were destroyed and neither position was altered. The 10th Armoured Division from Miteirya Ridge launched an attack which proved unsuccessful. Far too much time was spent lifting mines from Miteirya Ridge and beyond, that the 8th Armoured Brigade was caught by an air attack and dispersed. By daylight they were still behind schedule and were receiving considerable fire from tanks and anti-tank guns.  The next day the Allies had advanced through the minefields and were firmly entrenched atop Miteirya Ridge in the southeast while the Axis forces were still in their original positions. The battle came to a standstill.

Montgomery now decided that XXX Corps, while keeping firm hold of Miteirya, should strike northwards towards the coast with 9th Australian Division. Meanwhile, 1st Armoured Division, on the Australians' left, should continue to attack west and northwest, and activity to the south on both Corps fronts would be confined to patrolling. The battle would be concentrated at the Kidney feature and Tel el Eisa until a breakthrough occurred.

The Australians attacked Point 29, a 20-foot (6.1 m) high Axis artillery observation post southwest of Tel el Eisa. Their objective was to surround the Axis coastal salient containing the German 164th Light Division and Italian infantry. For the next few days it was the scene of heated battle. The Australian 26th Brigade attacked at midnight, supported by artillery and 30 tanks of 40th Royal Tank Regiment and gained the position, taking 240 prisoners.  Meanwhile, RAF bombers dropped 115 tons of bombs on targets in the battle field and fourteen tons on the Stuka base at Sidi Haneish, while night fighters flew patrols over the battle area and the Axis forward landing grounds.

By phase three of the battle, Allied artillery and air attacks were constant and ferocious resulting in very heavy German casualties. The Italian Trento Division lost 50% of its infantry and most of its artillery.

Rommel ordered a counterattack in an effort to regain Point 29 and deployed 15th Panzer, 164th Light Divisions, and some elements of Italian XX Corps. But it achieved nothing. He began to draw out his reserve forces but their progress was slow under continual heavy bombardment. Despite British efforts to move forward they were stopped by anti-tank guns, stalling the Allied offensive. Churchill railed, "Is it really impossible to find a general who can win a battle?"

On a brighter note for the British, Beaufort torpedo bombers of No. 42 Squadron RAF, attached to No. 47 Squadron,sank at Tobruk the tanker Proserpina which was the last hope for refueling Rommel's army.

Montgomery was concerned that the impetus of the offensive was waning. He therefore decided that over the next two days, while continuing the process of attrition, he would thin out his front line to create a reserve with which to restore his momentum. The reserve was to include the New Zealand Division (with 9th Armoured Brigade under command),10th Armoured Division and 7th Armoured Division.

On the night of October 28-29, the 20th Australian Infantry Brigade with the support of 40th R.T.R. advanced northwest from Point 29 to form a base for 26th Australian Infantry Brigade with support of the 46th R.T.R. Their objective was to strike northeast of the enemy-held position called "Thompson's Post". (south of the railway). Following that they were to cover the railway to the coast road where they would advance south east to close on the rear of the Axis troops in the coastal salient. An attack by the division's third brigade would then be launched on the salient from the southeast.

Because of the distances involved, the troops were riding on 46th R.T.R.'s Valentine tanks as well as carriers, which mines and anti-tank guns soon brought to grief forcing the infantry to dismount. The infantry and armour lost touch with each other in the ensuing fighting with the German 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment and a battalion of 7th Bersaglieri Regiment sent to reinforce the sector and the advance came to a halt. The Australians suffered 200 casualties in that attack and overall suffered 27 killed and 290 wounded.

It became clear that there were no longer enough hours of darkness left to reform, continue the attack and see it to its conclusion, so the operation was called off.

The Italian anti-tank gunners had fought fiercely and all were killed or died of wounds, except for 20 wounded men who were captured the following morning.

By the end of the day, the British had 800 tanks still in operation, while the  Germans had 148 and the Italians 187 tanks.  The Axis was dealt another blow with the sinking of the German tanker Luisiano off the west coast of Greece by a torpedo from a Wellington bomber: Rommel told his commanders, "It will be quite impossible for us to disengage from the enemy. There is no gasoline for such a manoeuvre. We have only one choice and that is to fight to the end at Alamein."

By the end of the night the Australians had reached the road and the railway making the position of the Axis troops in the salient precarious. The next day Rommel deployed a battlegroup from the 21st Panzer Division and launched four successive attacks against "Thompson's Post".  Despite intense fighting, often hand-to-hand battle, no ground was won by the Axis.

One of the Australians, Sargeant William Kibby, was killed on 31st for his heroic actions in making a lone attack on a machine gun. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.
Allied infantry

The next day, Rommel launched another attack to attempt to dislodge the Australians, but lost even more men and equipment in the process.

Two more German supply ships, the Tripolino and the Ostia were torpedoed and sunk northwest of Tobruk.

Rommel began to plan a retreat anticipating retiring to Fuka, some 50 mi (80 km) west. Ironically, large amounts of fuel arrived at Benghazi after the German forces had started to retreat, but little of it reached the front.

The fourth phase of the battle began at 01:00 hours on November 2nd with the objective of destroying enemy armour, forcing the enemy to fight in the open, depleting Axis oil supplies, attacking and occupying enemy supply routes, and causing the disintegration of enemy rank and file. The mission codenamed "Supercharge" was greater than anything witnessed so far. The objective of this operation was the base of Axis defense at Tel el Aqqaqir, located about 3 mi (4.8 km) northwest of the Kidney feature and situated on the Rahman lateral track.

The attack was carried out by a division composed of the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, the 28th (Maori) Infantry Battalion with 151st (Durham) Brigade from 50th Division under its command, 152nd (Seaforth and Camerons) Brigade from 51st Division and the 133rd Royal Sussex Lorried Infantry Brigade. In addition, the division was to have British 9th Armoured Brigade under command.

Supercharge started with a seven hour aerial bombardment concentrated on Tel el Aqqaqir and Sidi Abd el Rahman. The two assault brigades gained most of their objectives with moderate losses. On the right of the main attack 28th (Maori) battalion captured positions to protect the right flank of the newly formed salient and 133rd Lorried Infantry did the same on the left. New Zealand engineers cleared five lines through the mines allowing the Royal Dragoons armoured car regiment to slip out into the open and spend the day raiding the Axis communications.

In Phase Five, codenamed the "Breakout", Rommels forces were at an standstill. On November 2 he dispatched a communique to Hitler informing him that "the army's strength was so exhausted after its ten days of battle that it was not now capable of offering any effective opposition to the enemy's next break-through attempt… With our great shortage of vehicles an orderly withdrawal of the non-motorised forces appeared impossible…In these circumstances we had to reckon, at the least, with the gradual destruction of the army.". Rommel was determined to hold the battlefield. Meanwhile in what was its biggest day of the battle, the Allies flew 1,208 sorties and dropped 396 short tons (359 t) of bombs over Axis positions.

The plan for pursuit was set into motion on November 4th. At dawn the Eighth Army called upon the 7th Armoured Division to swing northward and roll up the Axis units still in the forward lines, and  the 2nd New Zealand Division with two lorry borne infantry brigades, the 9th Armoured and 4th Light Armoured Brigades to advance west along desert tracks to the escarpment above Fuka, about 60 mi (97 km) away. The New Zealand units were dispersed and took some time to concentrate their troops. Further delays were caused by congestion of the paths through the minefields.

In addition to the Ariete Division, was also the destruction of the Littorio Division and the Trieste Motorised Division. The Italians fought to the last man. Private Sid Martindale, 1st Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, wrote about 25th Bologna Infantry Division, which had taken the full weight of the British armoured attack:

"The more we advanced the more we realized that the Italians did not have much fight on them after putting up a strong resistance to our overwhelming advance and they started surrendering to our lead troops in droves. There was not much action to see but we came across lots of burnt out Italian tanks that had been destroyed by our tanks. I had never seen a battlefield before and the site of so many dead was sickening."

Bologna and the remainder of Trento Division tried to fight their way out of Alamein and marched in the desert without water, food, or transport before surrendering exhausted and dying from dehydration. In a symbolic act of final defiance none of the Italian troops raised their hands. Harry Zinder of Time magazine noted that the Italians fought better than had been expected, and commented that for the Italians:

It was a terrific letdown by their German allies. They had fought a good fight. In the south, the famed Folgore parachute division fought to the last round of ammunition. Two armoured divisions and a motorised division, which had been interspersed among the German formations, thought they would be allowed to retire gracefully with Rommel's 21st, 15th and 19th light. But even that was denied them. When it became obvious to Rommel that there would be little chance to hold anything between El Daba and the frontier, his Panzers dissolved, disintegrated and turned tail, leaving the Italians to fight a rear-guard action.

By late morning on 4 November, Rommel realized his situation was dire: "The picture in the early afternoon of the 4th was as follows: powerful enemy armoured forces… had burst a 12-mile hole in our front, through which strong bodies of tanks were moving to the west. As a result of this, our forces in the north were threatened with encirclement by enemy formations 20 times their number in tanks… There were no reserves, as every available man and gun had been put into the line. So now it had come, the thing we had done everything in our power to avoid – our front broken and the fully motorised enemy streaming into our rear. Superior orders could no longer count. We had to save what there was to be saved."

Subsequently the Allies captured von Thoma, and had encircled Ariete and Trento divisions. Rommel telegraphed Hitler for permission to retreat. By 17:30 hours not having received any response, Rommel gave the order to retreat.

On the morning of 6 November, the 7th Armoured Division had come upon 21st Panzer and the Voss Reconnaissance Group and a series of clashes broke out during the day during which 21st Panzer lost 16 tanks and numerous guns. The Germans narrowly escaped encirclement, and by evening had retreated to Mersa Matruh.

During the day U.S. heavy bombers attacked Tobruk, sinking Etopia and later attacked Benghazi, sinking the Mars and setting alight the tanker Portofino.

The Battles of El Alamein had been ferocious but in the end, the Allies' had total victory. Axis casualties of 37,000 amounted or 30% of their total force. By comparison Allied casualties of 13,500 were a small proportion of their total force.  At the end of the battle, the Panzer army numbered about 5,000 troops, 20 tanks, 20 anti-tank guns and 50 field guns.  The Allies were taken by surprise with Rommel's withdrawal and were slow to pursue him, failing to cut him off at Fuka and then Mersa Matruh.

El Alamein was the first great offensive against the Germans in which the Western Allies were victorious. Winston Churchill famously summed up the battle on 10 November 1942 with the words,  

"This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. 
But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." 


General Montgomery

Winston Churchill



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