Monty’s blun­ders

No more re­verses. That was the mes­sage that the Bri­tish Eighth Army car­ried into the sec­ond bat­tle of El Alamein in Oc­to­ber 1942. What hap­pened next trans­formed Bri­tish for­tunes in the desert war. But, asks James Hol­land, did vic­tory come at too high a pr

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - James Hol­land is an au­thor, his­to­rian and broad­caster. His books in­clude The Bat­tle of Bri­tain: Five Months That Changed His­tory (Corgi, 2011)

James Hol­land of­fers a new take on the Al­lies’ fa­mous, but flawed, vic­tory at the sec­ond bat­tle of El Alamein 75 years ago

At around 9.40pm on Fri­day 23 Oc­to­ber 1942, Flight Lieu­tenant Tommy Thomp­son, a Bat­tle of Bri­tain and Malta vet­eran, was fly­ing over the Alamein line on his re­turn from a straf­ing mis­sion. Sud­denly, the guns be­low opened up and it seemed to Thomp­son that one mas­sive flash of fire had erupted in a long line. Mes­merised, he cir­cled around at just 3,000 feet and watched. Fur­ther away he spot­ted a wave of bombers pound­ing en­emy po­si­tions too. “A mag­nif­i­cent sight,” he re­called. “What an ar­tillery bat­tle.”

On the ground, 22-year-old Cor­po­ral Al­bert Martin of 2nd Bat­tal­ion, Ri­fle Brigade had never heard any­thing like it in the two long years he’d been in the desert. He’d been feel­ing on edge and nervy all day, know­ing they would be go­ing into bat­tle that night and that it would be a tough fight. One hun­dred and six­teen thousand Ger­mans and Ital­ians were dug in be­hind mil­lions of mines, thick en­tan­gle­ments of wire, and sup­ported by guns, tanks, ma­chine-guns and mor­tars.

Nor was Martin pleased about his role. The Ri­fle Brigade had been used to in­de­pen­dence and mo­bil­ity, beetling about the desert in trucks. That night, as the bat­tle be­gan, their job was to pro­tect the engi­neers as they cleared six paths through the mine­fields. It was through these lanes, each the width of a ten­nis court, that the mass of ar­mour was due to pour, get in be­hind the en­emy and then ex­ploit their ad­van­tage.

As Martin lis­tened to the deaf­en­ing blast of 900 guns, and felt the shock­waves puls­ing through the ground, he knew the wait was over. As the gun­ners’ load­ing rhythm changed, so the sky be­came a kalei­do­scope of flick­er­ing colour. The sec­ond bat­tle of Alamein had be­gun, and if suc­cess­ful, as the Bri­tish Eighth Army com­man­der Gen­eral Mont­gomery had as­sured them it would be, then the Ger­mans and Ital­ians could be driven from all of Africa for good.

Bick­er­ing and belly­ach­ing

Eighth Army had un­der­gone quite some trans­for­ma­tion since ig­no­min­ious de­feats at Gazala and To­bruk back in June. How­ever, it was not poor equip­ment or train­ing – as some claimed at the time, and have done ever since – that caused these re­verses, but rather poor gen­er­al­ship. Neil Ritchie, the Eighth Army com­man­der, had been over-pro­moted, and had no con­trol or author­ity over his sub­or­di­nates, who were all bick­er­ing. In­de­ci­sion and lack of clear think­ing led to an en­tirely un­nec­es­sary dis­as­ter.

In con­trast, the RAF in the Mid­dle East was ably led by Air Mar­shal Arthur Ted­der, while his sub­or­di­nate, Air Vice-Mar­shal Arthur

Con­ing­ham, had shown the dy­namic lead­er­ship that had been so lack­ing in his army col­leagues.

The Bri­tish fi­nally halted Ger­man gen­eral Er­win Rom­mel’s dra­matic ad­vance at the Alamein po­si­tion, but a clear-out of se­nior com­man­ders was now ur­gently re­quired. Out went Gen­eral Auchin­leck, the com­man­derin-chief Mid­dle East, and so too did a host of other com­man­ders, Ritchie in­cluded. In their stead came Gen­eral Sir Harold Alexan­der as C-in-C and Gen­eral Bernard Mont­gomery as the new Eighth Army Com­man­der. In Au­gust 1942, they were the right team and both ut­terly com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing there were no more re­verses. Both also recog­nised that the big­gest prob­lem for Eighth Army was one of morale, and one that needed right­ing quickly.

Alexan­der was the most ex­pe­ri­enced bat­tle­field com­man­der of any side in the war, hav­ing com­manded in ac­tion at ev­ery rank. He’d even led Ger­man troops in the Baltic Landwehr against Rus­sia in 1920. Ut­terly im­per­turbable, charm­ing, and full of good judg­ment, he un­der­stood all facets of war and both pro­tected his army com­man­der from in­ter­fer­ence from London and over­saw the swift build-up of sup­plies in Egypt. Mont­gomery, mean­while, was highly ca­pa­ble, no-non­sense and a fine trainer of men. He did not tol­er­ate ‘ belly­ach­ing’, as he called it, which was what was needed at that time.

A dash for Tu­nis

At the end of Au­gust, when Rom­mel made his last at­tempt to break the Alamein po­si­tion, Mont­gomery fought a good de­fen­sive bat­tle and sen­si­bly re­sisted the urge to coun­ter­at­tack in turn. Un­like Ritchie and Auchin­leck, he also worked closely and well with Con­ing­ham and the RAF; the de­fen­sive vic­tory at Alan Halfa, as the bat­tle be­came known, be­longed as much to the RAF as it did Eighth Army. Monty also recog­nised, as Alexan­der had re­alised, that noth­ing less than a de­ci­sive vic­tory would do in their next en­gage­ment. For that to hap­pen, he ar­gued, more tanks, guns and men were needed – and his troops re­quired more train­ing.

Im­mense pres­sure was be­ing put on Alexan­der to launch the bat­tle as soon as pos­si­ble; at the same time, prepa­ra­tions were un­der way for a joint An­glo-US in­va­sion force to land in north-west Africa, over­run the Vichy French in Al­ge­ria and Morocco and then make a dash for Tu­nis. The aim was for the Axis forces in Africa to be crushed by a two-pronged at­tack from west and east. But the de­struc­tion of Rom­mel’s Panz­er­armee Afrika now at Alamein was to hap­pen first.

Mont­gomery in­sisted his at­tack could not be launched be­fore Oc­to­ber. Even­tu­ally, it was agreed that Eighth Army’s as­sault would be­gin on the night of 23 Oc­to­ber, when there was a full moon. His plan was to punch two holes through the Axis de­fences, one in the north of the 40-mile line and an­other fur­ther south. The north­ern breach was to be the main one and was also where the en­emy

Mont­gomery recog­nised that noth­ing less than a de­ci­sive vic­tory would do in the Eighth Army’s next en­gage­ment

de­fences were strong­est, but Monty wanted to hit Rom­mel head-on. His XXX Corps was to punch this hole to a depth of 3–5 miles through two chan­nels each of three lanes. Through these nar­row lanes, X Corps was to pass and burst out into the open desert be­yond. Bri­tish tanks would hold the in­fe­rior num­bers of Axis tanks at bay while the in­fantry de­stroyed the en­emy in­fantry through a process Monty called ‘crum­bling’. Mean­while, XIII Corps would break through in the south and split the Axis forces in half.

Ar­moured break-out

Ev­ery man re­hearsed the process over and over. De­cep­tion plans were also brought into play and Mont­gomery placed a huge reliance, as ever, on the in­creas­ingly de­pend­able RAF and his ar­tillery. Over­whelm­ing fire­power was the name of the game.

Monty reck­oned this would take about 10 days. The first part was the ‘ break-in’. Then came the ‘dog­fight’ – the slog­ging grind of en­emy forces. Last would come the ‘ break­out’ by the ar­mour to se­cure vic­tory.

Broadly, this was what hap­pened, al­though in­evitably there were twists and turns and set­backs, not least on the open­ing

night. Pour­ing masses of ar­mour through six lanes, each only 8 yards wide, was am­bi­tious, es­pe­cially in the north where the desert soil was fine sand. The tracks of hun­dreds of tanks, tow-to-tail, quickly ground the sand as fine as tal­cum pow­der, which com­bined with im­mense amounts of smoke to cloak the bat­tle­field. Cor­po­ral Al­bert Martin had lit­tle idea of what was go­ing on and was soon caked in chok­ing dust and could see lit­tle. Nor could the tanks, which be­gan crash­ing into one an­other and over-heat­ing.

Su­per­charged ad­vance

Then the en­emy guns, ap­par­ently not re­motely de­stroyed, opened up. By dawn, much of the Bri­tish ar­mour was ex­posed in the open. “It was quite one of the worst mo­ments of my life,” noted Ma­jor Stan­ley Christo­pher­son, com­man­der of A Squadron, the Sher­wood Rangers. “I couldn’t go for­ward, but all the heavy tanks were be­hind me so I couldn’t go back… we just had to sit there.” He sur­vived, al­though many of his crews were not so for­tu­nate.

The bat­tle ground on over the en­su­ing days. De­spite the suc­cess of the Aus­tralians in the very north, Monty paused on 26 Oc­to­ber. Mean­while, Al­bert Martin and his com­rades in the Ri­fle Brigade had be­come tem­po­rary anti-tank gun­ners and, hav­ing edged for­ward overnight on 28 Oc­to­ber, woke to find them­selves con­fronting the main Axis panzer coun­ter­at­tack. It was to prove a de­ci­sive day as they stub­bornly held their ground and knocked out 70 en­emy tanks and self-pro­pelled guns. How he’d man­aged to sur­vive that or­deal, he had no idea.

Early on 2 Novem­ber, Mont­gomery re­launched his at­tack, co­de­named Su­per­charge. In essence, it was more of the same, but it did what the open­ing phase had failed to do: break the back of the Panz­er­armee’s de­fence.

The end was now in sight. “The bat­tle is go­ing heav­ily against us,” Rom­mel wrote to his wife on 3 Novem­ber. “We’re sim­ply be­ing crushed by the en­emy weight.” That summed it up neatly. Su­pe­rior num­bers, su­pe­rior fire­power and the re­lent­less air as­sault by the RAF had blud­geoned Rom­mel’s forces into a ter­mi­nal de­feat. By 4 Novem­ber, the Panz­er­armee was on the run, stream­ing back west across the desert.

The bat­tle of Alamein was the first de­ci­sive land vic­tory by the Bri­tish against Ger­man forces and came less than two-and-a-half years after the cat­a­strophic de­feat of France and the re­treat of the BEF from Dunkirk. Back then, Bri­tain’s army had been tiny. Its growth since had been im­pres­sive.

Alexan­der and Mont­gomery’s vic­tory had also showed that, de­spite the de­feat at Gazala four months ear­lier, there was much al­ready in place that Bri­tain was get­ting right: de­cent equip­ment, de­ter­mined troops, an in­creas­ingly ef­fec­tive tac­ti­cal air force and a greater de­pen­dence on tech­nol­ogy and fire­power, all of which played to Bri­tish strengths.

The big­gest beef

But, for all that the Bri­tish Army was a trans­formed force, the sec­ond bat­tle of El Alamein was a flawed vic­tory. There’s lit­tle doubt that, though it made a hero of Monty, it

Su­pe­rior num­bers, su­pe­rior fire­power and the re­lent­less air as­sault by the RAF had blud­geoned Rom­mel’s forces into de­feat

was a tac­ti­cally turgid cam­paign – one that wasted lives and ma­teriel.

Gen­eral Fran­cis Tuker had com­manded the 4th In­dian Di­vi­sion at Alamein and was one of the bright­est, yet most un­der-used, com­man­ders the Bri­tish had. Ear­lier in the year, with Rom­mel on the charge, he sug­gested to Auchin­leck and Ritchie that, rather than fall­ing back to the Alamein line, it made far more sense for Eighth Army to es­tab­lish their de­fen­sive po­si­tion at To­bruk , which had an open sup­ply line to the sea and which had with­stood all the en­emy had thrown at it dur­ing a siege that had lasted half the pre­vi­ous year. As he pointed out, Rom­mel could not sim­ply by­pass such a bas­tion. Tuker was right, but his good ad­vice was ig­nored, and the Eighth Army al­most an­ni­hi­lated.

Mont­gomery never asked his ad­vice be­fore the sec­ond bat­tle of Alamein, but Tuker was firmly of the view that it made sense to strike a heavy blow with in­fantry, sup­ported by ar­tillery on a nar­row front in the north, around a fea­ture or ridge that meant the Panz­er­armee sim­ply had to coun­ter­at­tack. The key, he reck­oned, was to draw in the bulk of the Axis ar­mour in the north.

While most of the Panz­er­armee’s ar­mour and ar­tillery was caught up with this at­tack, Tuker would have made a sec­ond thrust si­mul­ta­ne­ously in the cen­tre of the line with the bulk of the ar­mour, where the de­fences were not as strong. This plan made good sense.

Tuker’s big­gest beef with Monty’s ideas, how­ever, was over his fire plan at the start of the bat­tle. Of the 900 field guns avail­able, Monty only em­ployed 400 in sup­port of the main thrust in the north – that is, less than half. That meant that 500 guns were not be­ing used in the main thrust, while more than 300 were avail­able to sup­port the feint thrust of XIII Corps to the south.

Per­haps more in­ex­pli­ca­ble, though, was the way in which the guns were used. A cen­tral tenet of war is the con­cen­tra­tion of force. For all his new stamp and fight­ing talk, Mont­gomery dis­persed his fire­power not only in terms of its spread along the length of their line, but also in the way the guns were fired. Those 400 in the north were spread over 10 miles, with just 100 guns sup­port­ing each of the four at­tack­ing di­vi­sions. That wasn’t very many, es­pe­cially since they were mostly fir­ing straight ahead. A far bet­ter plan would have been to have at­tacked over, say, 5 miles, with 750 guns fir­ing in con­cen­tra­tion.

So the sec­ond bat­tle of El Alamein wasn’t the mas­ter­piece that has of­ten been por­trayed, and it could be ar­gued that the Eighth Army paid far too high a price for vic­tory. This won’t, of course, pre­vent it from be­ing re­mem­bered as a turn­ing point in the war in north Africa – and nor should it, for El Alamein set the Bri­tish on the path to the cap­ture of Tu­nis six months later. Here, in a tri­umph that would se­cure vic­tory in north Africa, Al­lied troops cap­tured or killed 250,000 Axis troops and seized a vast amount of en­emy ma­teriel. In do­ing so, they in­flicted a big­ger ma­te­rial de­feat on the Ger­mans than the one at Stal­in­grad three months ear­lier.

Churchill tanks ad­vance across the desert dur­ing the sec­ond bat­tle of El Alamein, Oc­to­ber 1942. Since its de­feat in France two years ear­lier, the Bri­tish Army’s growth had been im­pres­sive, and El Alamein was the arena in which it first made this size count against the Ger­mans

The sec­ond bat­tle of El Alamein saw the Eighth Army punch­ing holes in Axis de­fences and then em­ploy­ing over­whelm­ing fire­power to sub­due the en­emy, as our map shows

BE­LOW: Ital­ian troops run for cover dur­ing an RAF air raid, 26 Oc­to­ber 1942. Vic­tory at El Alamein would give the Al­lies an un­stop­pable mo­men­tum in the north African cam­paign

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