The Battle of El Alamein
This Egyptian desert railway halt, situated about 95 km(60 mi.) west of Alexandria, gave its name to two different encounters between Allied and Axis forces during the Western Desert Campaigns. The first and some say erroneously named, was a defensive battle fought by the British and the Commonwealth Eighth Army from 1 to 4 July 1942. Commanded by General Auchinleck, the Eighth Army prevented Rommel's Panzer Army Africa (renamed German-Italian Panzer Army, 25 October 1942) from breaking through its defensive lines near Ruweisat Ridge when Rommel made a penultimate bid to conquer Egypt and seize the Suez Canal. It is still a matter of debate whether Auchinleck, aided by ULTRA intelligence and Dorman-Smith, was at last able to gain the initiative; or whether Rommel had simply run out of steam.
Before this battle between the two armies, Germany had conquered the whole of Western Europe and had strong allies in Italy and Japan. USA had just entered the fray after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. The war was threatening to enter into a world wide crisis with at least one of the countries in every continent in the world involved.
The Aida Operation Plan was hatched by Axis Powers for the Suez Canal. Italy and Germany combined forces for the first time since war began and they had scored a few victories and wanted to advance north. However, the vital supply route for both the Axis and the Allies, Malta, was ignored by Hitler who wanted to advance right away. Malta, situated at the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, was occupied by the British at that time and they could get their supplies easily. They also raided German ships who were sent to reinforce Rommel. Although the city was devastated by German bombs at first, the British managed to reinforce Malta and in turn aid Montgomery's army.
Rommel tried to break through again and failed, at Alam Halfa in September. Then in the second El Alamein battle, the Eighth Army, now commanded by Lt-General Montgomery, fought successfully between 23 October and 4 November 1942 to pierce Rommel's defences, forcing him to retreat into Tunisia.
Unlike most previous Western Desert battles, this second battle was a set-piece affair against static defences with no turnable flank and lack of fuel and transport prevented Rommel from practicing the mobile warfare of which he was a master. Instead, before going on sick leave on 23 September ( he returned on 25 October), he ordered his defences strengthened by laying half a million anti-tank mines. Within these main minefields smaller ones, comprising anti-personnel devices, were laid. The Germans called them 'the Devil's gardens', and they caused Montgomery's attack serious delays. Rommel also 'corseted' the weaker Italian units with German formations and formed his armour into six groups positioned to counter-attack any breach of his defences. Besides being critically short of fuel, Rommel was outgunned and outmanned by the British.
|Eighth Army||Panzer Army Africa|
|Men||195,000||104,000(including 50,000 Germans)|
|Infantry Battalions||85||71 including 31 German|
|Field and Medium artillery||500||908|
|Aircraft||530||350 (+150 from other)|
Montgomery's plan (LIGHTFOOT) was to breach Rommel's northern defences by employing four infantry divisions of Leese's 30th Corps on a 16 km (10 mi.) front. Paths would be cleared through the minefields to enable the two armoured divisions of Lumsden's 10th Corps to pass beyond the infantry's bridgehead, a line codenamed OXALIC, to a line (PIERSON) running south-east from Kidney Ridge. There, they would take up defensive positions against any German armoured attack and would not go on to the offensive until the infantry battle-the 'crumbling' process as Montgomery called it-had been won.
By attacking in the more heavily defended northern sector and by laying on elaborate deception plans and diversionary attacks in the south with 13th Corps, Montgomery achieved initial surprise. His plan envisaged three stages of the battle: the break-in, the 'dogfight' which will last about a week and the break-out.
But the break-in, begun during the night of 23 / 24 October before a rolling barrage from 882 guns, was slowed by the depth of Rommel's defences and Lumsden's armour only reached OXALIC on the first day. However, 9th Australian Division took a key feature in their northern sector and began developing a salient while 1st Armoured Division attacked two centres of resistance (SNIPE and WOODCOCK) either side of Kidney Ridge. Rommel launched fierce counter-attacks there but these were contained and constant Allied air attacks and concentrated artillery bombardments (both features of the battle) aided the infantry's 'crumbling' of his forces. Meanwhile the Australians continued to push out their salient and this siphoned Rommel's best troops away from where Montgomery was about to unleash a second attack (SUPERCHARGE) while it also 'uncorseted' the Italians.
But the process was slow and the Churchill became agitated when divisions were withdrawn from the front for SUPERCHARGE. This was launched on the night of 1 / 2 November by the New Zealand Division and other infantry units, north of Kidney Ridge and south of where Rommel's elite units had now been drawn. This cleared the way forward for the armour and Rommel, after his forces suffered further attrition, decided the battle was lost and that he must save his mobile troops by withdrawing to Fuka. He warned Hitler on 2 November that his army was without fuel and faced annihilation - a signal which, thanks to ULTRA, was in Montgomery's hands the next morning - but when, in a second signal, he said a withdrawal had begun, Hitler ordered him to stand fast. Rommel tried to do so but once started, the process could not be reversed. A night attack by the 51st Highland Division overran its objectives and at dawn on 4 November it found Tell El Aqqaqir abandoned. At midday, Rommel's defences caved in and that evening Hitler gave him permission to withdraw. But by then Rommel's defeated army had started its headlong retreat across Libya during which Montgomery netted 30,000 prisoners-of-war. Allied casualties during the battle had amounted to 13,560.
El Alamein was the climax of the Western Desert campaigns and one of the turning-points of the war; the victory, as intended, influenced the French to co-operate in the North African campaign after initially opposing the landings there.
|Axis Leaders| |Allies
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