The Campaign for North Africa: The Battle of El Alamein "Strategically and psychologically, El Alamein ranks as a decisive battle of World War II. It initiated the Axis decline. The victory saved the Suez Canal, was a curtain-raiser for the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa 4 days later, and was a prelude to the debacle of Stalingrad. Allied morale soared, particularly in the British Empire, proud to have at long last a victorious army and general; Axis morale correspondingly dipped. Hitlers order that Rommel should stand fast (rescinded 48 hours later, after the Desert Fox had already started to withdraw) contributed to the ruin of Rommels army".
El Alamein appears to be nothing but an inconsequential village; an insignificant waypoint across the barren desert landscape of North Africa. Yet, the seemingly irrelevant piece of land would come to witness the single greatest battle of the North African campaign battle that ranks among the greatest of World War II. The time is 1942- the past two years have seen the advance of Axis powers across North Africa. Allied forces suffered loss after loss as the Germans and Italians pushed easterly towards the jewel of North Africa: Egypt.
Egypt marked the gateway to the rich oil resources of the Middle East if Field Marshall Rommel, Commander of Panzerarmee Afrika, could destroy the Allied forces, Egypt would be in Hitlers hands. The oil resources of the Middle East were of particular importance to Hitler, whose supplies were dwindling. They were so desperate for oil that as well as influencing their tactical decisions, the Germans were having to eke out their stockpile by producing fuel synthetically from coal. If the Nazis could seize control of the great oil reservoirs of Iraq and Iran, the balance could shift overnight. Oil was not the only prize for an Axis victory, however. Conquering Egypt would separate Britains direct sea line to India.
Because the Suez Canal was so strategically important, Japan, victorious in southeast Asia, could conceivably join forces with a German army in control of the Middle East. Indeed, victory here and now might well decide the whole war. The consequences of a German-Japanese controlled Middle East were ominous: Axis forces could conceivably outflank the Russians and heartily defeat them. El Alamein is located 50 miles west of Alexandria, on the coastal railway of Mers a Mat ruh.
El Alamein marks the northern boundary of the 40-mile wide corridor through the Western Desert to Cairo. The southern boundary of the corridor is Qarat al Himeimat. South of Qarat al Himeimat lays the Qattara Depression, a salt marsh 400 feet below sea level that stretches southwesterly towards Siwa for 200 miles. Stretching south and west from Siwa is the Great Sand Sea, filled with dunes that make it virtually impassible.
The areas unusual topography made for a bottleneck effect: most experts thought El Alamein to be the last defendable place in the Western Desert. Indeed, west of Alamein, the desert opens up and is highly traffic able. The weather of the Western Desert is what one would expect: daytime temperatures are extremely high (near 120 degrees Fahrenheit), but nighttime temperatures are as low as fifty degrees. The intense heat of the afternoon causes mirages and therefore, makes reconnaissance inaccurate or impossible. Sandstorms are common, usually springing up about an hour before sundown. The lack of significant landmarks, combined with the absence of light, made navigation extremely difficult and was known to cause disorientation and fear.
It is relevant to note here, that the soldiers who participated in the North African campaign were rationed 1 gallon of water a day. This water was to be used for cooking, cleaning, vehicles, and what was left was for drinking. Supply played an essential role in the battle. The Axis powers supply route went from Sicily or Italy to the main base in Tripoli with little resistance from the Royal Navy.
The Axis forces, however, were at a disadvantage as they moved westerly across the desert: El Alamein was 1,400 miles from their main base. The length of the supply route began to cause logistical problems and influenced Rommels tactical decisions. For instance, Rommel knew that until he had sufficient gasoline and supply caches, he would have to remain on the defensive, which entailed that he not use the sweeping flanking manu evers which had made him successful. On October 23, 1942, the Axis had available 104,000 soldiers, 489 tanks, 1219 guns, and 198 planes.
This equaled eight infantry and four armored divisions. Fuel, ammunition, and other supplies were extremely short. Additionally, the Axis powers lacked any forces capable of intervening. Hitler was concurrently deeply committed in Russia and would not commit additional forces in Egypt. The Allied supplied route, however was much longer. Supplies were shipped from the British Isles through the southern route: the ships passed the Cape of Good Hope and came back through the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
Once supplies were in Egypt, however, it was but a quick jaunt to Alamein. At the onset of the battle, the Allies had three Army Corps: seven infantry and three armored divisions with seven additional armored brigades. This equaled roughly 220,000 men, 1350 tanks, 2311 guns and more than 1,000 planes. Fuel and ammunition were plentiful. It is obvious that the Allies had the numerical advantage. In addition to the numerical advantage that the Allies possessed, they also had better equipment.
The American Grant and Sherman tanks were vastly superior to the older German Panzers, although they had a high profile unsuitable for desert warfare. The Germans had obtained a few of the new Panzer and Panzer IV tanks, but they were rendered inconsequential by the numerical disparities. General Montgomery was the Commander of the British Commonwealths eighth Army, under General Alexander, Commander-in-Chief, Middle East. General Montgomery had replaced Claude Auchinleck at the behest of Winston Churchill who believed that Auchinlecks performance had been unacceptable.
Also under the auspices of the 8th Army were New Zealand, Australian, Indian, and South African divisions. Field Marshall Rommel, Commander of Panzerarmee Afrika, had become ill immediately before the battle, and had flown back to Germany for medical treatment. General Hans Stumme, who had temporarily replaced Rommel, was therefore in charge at the onset of the battle. The Battle of El Alamein was carefully planned by General Montgomery, who, after the Battle of Alam Half a, refused to launch a counter-attack until the eighth Army was stabilized. Montgomery, therefore, was forced to postpone the battle until after September 1942.
Montgomery also required that the operation must occur in conjunction with a full moon, in order to give light for night operations in penetrating German defenses. The next full moon was to occur on October 24, so Montgomery planned Operation Lightfoot for 23 October, in order to have as many moonlit nights as possible. The Operation would also coincide with General Eisenhowers assault of French North Africa, code-named Torch. During the preparations for the battle, the Royal Air Force established complete air superiority and subjected Axis forces to intensifying punishment. General Montgomery planned the battle in three stages: the break in, the dogfight, and the break out. Montgomery planned to use diversionary tactics to indicate that he would attack in the South, drawing forces away from the strongly held North, then massing Allied forces in the North.
On 23 October, the break-in phase of the battle began when 1000 British guns opened up along a six mile front in the North. Twenty minutes later, at approximately 10 PM local time, the 30 struck the North, while to the South, the 13th Corps began a diversionary attack near the Qattara Depression. Four hours later, the 10th Armored Corps advanced through two corridors in the minefields that had been cleared by the 30 Corps Infantry. The Italians resisted, and the 15th Panzer Division launched a counter-attack that almost completely halted British progress. Although, the diversionary tactics of the offensive had succeeded in tying up the 21st Panzer Division in the South, the objectives of the operation had not been completely met. Several minefields remained unclear throughout the night: When daylight came on the morning of October 24th, the British had bitten a deep chunk out of the enemy defense zone, but they had failed their purpose, which was to get through to the open desert on the other side of Miteiriya Ridge.
For that reason, lanes could not be cleared right through the minefields for the 10th Corps. Instead, the Corps tanks and trucks found themselves stuck in dead-end paths behind the infantry. All through the daylight hours, the 10th Corps ground slowly forward along the narrow paths in the minefields radiators boiling, vehicles jammed together under savage German fire. The Germans had won the first part of the battle. Yet, during the phase, General Hans Stumme, acting Commander of Panzerarmee Afrika, died of a heart attack and Rommel flew back and resumed command. Soon after returning (October 27th), Rommel launched an assault when the sun was low in the west and would blind the British gunners.
This assault was fruitless, however as the 21st and 15th Panzer Divisions fell prey to the Royal Air Forces incessant bombing. This was considered the turning point of the battle. Rommel, too, acknowledged that the battle was all but over. He informed Hitler that the best thing to do would be to retreat as strategically as possible to avoid a decisive defeat. In a now historical reply, Hitler ordered Rommel to defend El Alamein: You can show your troops no way but the one that leads to victory or death.
By this time, the second phase of the battle, code named Operation Supercharge, was in full swing. The main progress of this phase was made by the 9th Australian Division in the coastal sector. The Australian threat was so great that Rommel was forced to commit his reserves to the north to contain them. The Allied forces took advantage of Rommels commitment and planned an assault for November 1st.
The plan was to penetrate the area south of the Australian sector, and then divide the Axis forces into two by going behind the enemy defenses into the open desert. This attack was carried out by the 151st Brigade from the 50th British Division, and the 152nd Brigade, while the Maori (New Zealand) Battalion would clear an enemy position on the flank. The final phase of the battle began at one oclock in the morning on 2 November. A tremendous artillery barrage began as 150,000 rounds were fired on a 400-yard front during the next four hours. This awesome event produced a great red glow in the sky. The battlefield was shrouded with great clouds of dust that had been churned up by hundreds of vehicles moving, and the air was full of the acrid smell of cordite smoke.
The first objectives were taken at approximately 4 am. Two hours later the final objectives had fallen and were being consolidated. The Maori Battalion had cleared the enemy flank positions with brutal bayonet charges, and had linked with the Australians. Just before dawn, the three armored regiments of the 9th Armored Brigade passed through to continue the attack.
In spite of a strong anti-tank screen that inflicted heavy losses, the enemy line was decisively broken. A Panzer counter-attack was launched in the afternoon, but was met by the 1st and 10th British Armored Divisions and repelled with heavy losses. An armored car regiment, the Royal Dragoons, had broken through the enemy lines and was operating in the rear, cutting telephone lines and destroying supply dumps. The 10th Corps was victorious. On November 2 and 3, the battle continued, but Rommels forces were now beginning a hasty retreat contrary to Hitlers orders. On 4 November, the Allies began to chase the Axis forces, while the Desert Air Force inflicted heavy losses upon Axis convoys.
Rommel was headed towards El Agheila, but was forced back to Tripoli after learning of Eisenhowers North African landings. The landings meant that Rommel would have to go all the back to Tripoli to defend his base, and that the supplies and reinforcements that he was in dire need of were diverted to Tunisia. In Rommels own words, this spelled the end of the army in Africa. Indeed, the battle of El Alamein was a decisive victory for the Allies the first such victory of the war. The Axis forces suffered the loss of 59,000 men who were killed, wounded, or captured, 34,000 of who were German.
Rommel also lost 500 tanks, 400 guns, and a great quantity of vehicles. Conversely, the Allies had 13,000 men killed, wounded, or missing, while 432 tanks were destroyed. The Allied victory opened the door for the invasions of Sicily and Italy (conducted by the 8th Army), and ensured the success of Eisenhowers North African landings. The victory also assured that the fuel supplies of the Germans would remain depleted; the magnificent oil fields of Iraq and Iran would not fall under Hitlers control.
The outcome also prevented the fall of India and of the entire African continent. El Alamein changed the balance of power in World War II. The battle marked the beginning of the successful Allied campaigns and the decline of the Axis powers. Analysis of Hitlers order that Rommel remain in place shows Hitlers global over-commitment, and foreshadowed the outcome of the war. Indeed, the Battle of El Alamein was one of the most important of World War II.
Works Referenced 1. Barnett, Correll i. The Battle of El Alamein-Decision in the Desert. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964.
2. Carver, Michael. El Alamein. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962.
3. El Alamein. 4. Falla, P.S. Germany and the Second World War-Volume : The Mediterranean, South-east Europe, and North Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
5. Montgomery, Field Marshal The Viscount of Alamein. El Alamein to the River San gro. London: Hutchinson & Company, unknown date. 6. Phillips, C.E. Lucas. Alamein. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962.
7. Straws on, John. The Battle for North Africa. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.