MILITARYHISTORY: THE SEC­OND BAT­TLE OF EL ALAMEIN

Kev Lochun de­tails how, hailed as both the end of the be­gin­ning and the turn­ing of the tide, El Alamein was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in World War 2: a 12-day desert dog­fight that shat­tered the once-in­vin­ci­ble Afrika Korps

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This month, Kev Lochun looks at a desert bat­tle of World War 2 that de­vel­oped into a 12-day dog­fight.

El Alamein, in Novem­ber 1942, is lauded as the turn­ing point in the fight for North Africa. This was the bat­tle in which the Bri­tish Eighth Army fi­nally crip­pled Erwin Rom­mel’s much-feared Afrika Korps, be­gin­ning a rout that would force him all the back to Tu­nisia. In a stroke, it made a hero of Gen­eral Bernard Law Mont­gomery, bol­stered the frac­tured morale of the Bri­tish peo­ple and re­stored the in­tegrity of the army in the eyes of the US. Churchill was ec­static, order­ing church bells to be rung across the coun­try for the first time since 1940. “This is not the end,” he told a na­tion bask­ing in tri­umph. “It is not even the be­gin­ning of the end. But it is, per­haps, the end of the be­gin­ning.”

The leg­end of El Alamein is one of great hero­ism and dar­ing on a par with Trafal­gar or Water­loo. The re­al­ity, in­evitably, was less ro­man­tic. The bat­tle that took place was a 12- day slugfest fought across a sprawl­ing mine­field that was never cleared and still claims lives to­day. Bear­ing lit­tle sem­blance to the fast, rov­ing bat­tles of the early Desert Cam­paign, the fight­ing here was closer to some­thing from the an­nals of World War 1.

Rom­mel, the bold and much-ad­mired Desert Fox, had seemed in­vin­ci­ble ear­lier in the year. In mid-June he over­ran the de­fences at Gazala in Libya, forc­ing the Eighth Army into a hur­ried re­treat that was vi­ciously re­ported as the ‘Gazala Gal­lop’. A week later he cap­tured To­bruk, and in do­ing so took 25,000 Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth pris­on­ers, a de­ba­cle that led to Churchill fac­ing a vote of no con­fi­dence in the Com­mons. The Bri­tish were caught un­pre­pared again as they tried to re­group in Egypt at Mersa Ma­truh, re­sum­ing the ‘gal­lop’ all the way back to El Alamein, the last bas­tion be­tween Rom­mel and the Nile Delta.

and Ital­ian force. At 9.40pm, un­der the light of the full moon, the sky was set aflame.

“The air throbbed with a ma­jes­tic rhythm as from gi­gan­tic drums that rolled and crashed un­end­ingly,” re­mem­bered Ma­jor R Gorle of the 128th Field Reg­i­ment, Royal Ar­tillery. “To the north, to the east and to the south, wher­ever one looked, there were flick­er­ing flashes. When guns near us fired, the moon paled and the desert was bright as day, with every de­tail mo­men­tar­ily picked out in bril­liancy.”

He was wit­ness­ing a bom­bard­ment the likes of which had not been seen since World War 1, an iron on­slaught soon com­ple­mented by sor­ties from the Desert Air Force. 30 min­utes later, the gunners switched to a rolling bar­rage; as it ad­vanced, so too did the sol­diers of the Aus­tralian, High­land, New Zealand and South African Di­vi­sions, who would make the main as­sault against the north­ern end of Rom­mel’s line – tens of thou­sands of men ‘go­ing over the top’ in a fash­ion un­heard of for nearly a quar­ter of a cen­tury.

They charged into the mi­asma of Axis mines jovially re­ferred to by the Ger­mans as the ‘Devil’s Gar­dens’, ac­com­pa­nied by the

“Wher­ever one looked, there were flick­er­ing flashes… the moon paled and the desert was bright as day”

sap­pers tasked with carv­ing out safe paths for the Eighth Army’s ar­moured di­vi­sions to fol­low. Mont­gomery’s plan – co­de­named Light­foot – re­quired his tanks to be safely through the mine­field by sun­rise so they could sup­port the in­fantry; oth­er­wise they would be sit­ting ducks, trapped in full view of Rom­mel’s ar­tillery with no room to ma­noeu­vre.

DROWNEDOUT BAG­PIPES

As the in­fantry ad­vanced, the keen­ing of the Scots­men’s bag­pipes was drowned out by shells ex­plod­ing around them and the chat­ter of ma­chine­guns spit­ting their deadly hail. The go­ing was slower than ex­pected, the mine­field much larger, the Ger­man counter fire much heav­ier. The sap­pers strug­gled to main­tain the mo­men­tum of the ad­vance, and as dawn ap­proached, only one lane had been cleared. Dawn re­vealed 500 Bri­tish tanks at a near stand­still in sin­gle file.

“Every kind of tracer came fly­ing to­wards us from all direc­tions,” wrote tank of­fi­cer Ma­jor TM Lind­say. “The tanks crews wait­ing be­hind in the packed gaps through the mine­field saw ar­mour-pierc­ing tracer shells scream­ing from all over the place… then [came] the ex­plo­sions of tanks blow­ing up, sheets of flame as they caught fire.”

Within 12 hours of the bom­bard­ment, Mont­gomery’s open­ing gam­bit had failed. In the hours that fol­lowed, the tanks that could with­draw did so, leav­ing a scene of burn­ing hulks and smok­ing scrap be­hind them, while the in­fantry dug in. Over the next few days the same cy­cle of bloody at­tri­tion would play out: “Rivers of blood were poured out over mis­er­able strips of land,” Rom­mel noted as his in­creas­ingly be­lea­guered forces held back the Eighth Army’s ad­vance. His men were ex­hausted, his tanks run­ning on fumes, and he had been forced to com­mit all his re­serves to re­pel a fe­ro­cious as­sault on the coast by the Aus­tralians - but still Monty’s men could not en­gi­neer a break­through. Back in Lon­don, Churchill braced him­self for an­other fail­ure.

Mont­gomery came up with a new plan he called Su­per­charge, but could fairly be de­scribed as the Bal­a­clava of ar­mour. It is folly for tanks to thun­der into an anti-tank screen, just as it was folly for the Light Bri­gade charge head­first at a Rus­sian gun bat­tery in 1854, and yet with stale­mate look­ing in­evitable, he was pre­pared to make the sacri­fice. What fol­lowed was a re­peat of Light­foot, on a smaller scale and with cau­tion thrown to the wind.

At 1.05am on 2 Novem­ber, two Bri­tish in­fantry brigades dashed for­ward be­hind a heavy bom­bard­ment; once they had es­tab­lished a breach, 9th Ar­moured Bri­gade took over the charge. They were

swamped by Axis ar­tillery and Panz­ers from three sides, a piece of reck­less gal­lantry that cost them 74 of their 90 tanks. The 2nd and 8th Ar­moured Brigades were to fol­low them to force a break out, but they did not move quick enough and Rom­mel di­rected two Panzer di­vi­sions into their path, spark­ing the big­gest tank clash of the bat­tle.

“Vis­i­bil­ity be­came so bad that the gen­eral pic­ture was of one im­mense cloud of smoke and dust,” re­ported ob­servers from the Ger­man 90th Light Divi­sion. Amidst the dust­bowl, it was no less con­fus­ing, with tanks fight­ing in one on one bat­tles, out of for­ma­tion and at close range, fir­ing al­most in­dis­crim­i­nately. It was here that El Alamein was lost and won. Su­per­charge was de­railed, Mont­gomery foiled yet again, but it was Rom­mel who emerged de­feated – by dusk he had only 35 tanks still fit for bat­tle.

Re­solv­ing to save what was left of his army, Rom­mel ca­bled Hitler an­nounc­ing he would at­tempt to re­treat; the Fuhrer’s vain­glo­ri­ous re­sponse ar­rived the next day, an­nounc­ing there could be no choice but “vic­tory or death”. A stunned Rom­mel with­drew re­gard­less, and by 4th Novem­ber, the mo­bile el­e­ments of the Afrika Korps were in full flight, the rest left be­hind to be taken as POWs by the Eighth Army. Fi­nally, af­ter a string of dis­ap­point­ments that stretch back to Dunkirk in 1940, Bri­tain had some­thing to cheer about be­yond merely sur­viv­ing.

It is folly for tanks to thun­der into an anti-tank screen, yet he was pre­pared to make the sacri­fice

NOVEM­BER 2017 Left: Gen­eral Mont­gomery (later Field Mar­shal) watches Al­lied tanks ad­vance Be­low: Erwin Rom­mel in his half­track ar­moured ve­hi­cle

Al­lied in­fantry take cover be­hind a dis­abled Ger­man Panzer

The uni­form of an Ital­ian para­trooper at El Alamein In­fantry ad­vance through the dust and smoke of bat­tle at El Alamein Bri­tish tanks ad­vance to en­gage the Ger­mans af­ter in­fantry had opened gaps in the Axis mine­field on 24 Oc­to­ber 1942

The Bri­tish night ar­tillery bar­rage which opened the sec­ond bat­tle of El Alamein A Ger­man gun aban­doned af­ter the bat­tle

A mine ex­plodes close to a Bri­tish ar­tillery trac­tor as it ad­vances through en­emy mine­fields and wire to the new front line Sher­man tanks of the 8th Ar­moured Bri­gade be­fore be­ing called to join the bat­tle

Ger­man pris­on­ers cap­tured in the bat­tle

NOVEM­BER 2017 Bri­tish troops ex­am­ine a dam­aged Ger­man tank in North Africa in 1942

Kev Lochun is a writer and ed­i­tor spe­cial­is­ing in sci­ence and his­tory

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