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
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.
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