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
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.
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.
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