El Alamein - October 1942
In October 1942 yet another tipping point had arrived in the two year battle fought between Axis armies led by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the British Eighth Army. Although at one time or another each combatant army had won an advantage over its foe, this time Lieutenant General Bernard Law Montgomery's British Eighth Army stood ready to hammer Rommel's PanzerArmee - woefully overextended at the end of a deeply frayed line of supply across the North African desert.
The turn of events that would lead to El Alamein had begun late in the spring of 1942, when Rommel's army badly defeated the Eighth Army and drove it east to El Alamein - the last natural defensive position left to the Nile River's west and only 60 miles west of Alexandria's deep-water port. The weakened British army had held on against repeated late summer German assaults in part because the massive Qattara Depression to the south and the coast to the north bracketed El Alamein; protecting the British from Rommel's favorite flanking tactics. Thus Rommel had been forced into costly frontal assaults all while his own army weakened; in large part because he and the Axis leadership had neglected to secure the sea-lanes from the Italian mainland to North Africa.
The fixed nature of the El Alamein battlefield granted the British time to rebuild their army, force the Axis onto to the defensive and allowed Montgomery to prepare a counteroffensive heavily supported by artillery and air power; all designed to crush Rommel's army. Such a battle would avoid the risks that could devastate a British army rapidly running short on manpower, and would avoid allowing Rommel the opportunity to exercise the flair, mobility, and élan he needed to defeat his quantitatively superior British led enemy.
Montgomery's systematic and firepower-intensive approach to defeating Rommel at El Alamein would come to represent the quintessential British method for conducting offensives throughout the remainder of the Second World War. Indeed, the one significant time Montgomery would deviate from this strategy, and launch a mini blitzkrieg of his own, in September of 1944 in the Netherlands, his plan would be soundly defeated. Moreover, Montgomery's approach to the impending battle for El Alamein would allow him to rely to the utmost on the advantages provided by ULTRA; the Allied intelligence effort that had cracked the German communications code and allowed the Allies to, among other things, know Rommel's order of battle.
By late in October the time gained by the Eighth Army for rebuilding had been well spent. Montgomery's army enjoyed a tremendous edge over the Axis forces arrayed at El Alamein; reaching 230,000 to 124,000 in manpower (82,000 German), 1,500 to 350 in airplanes, 2,311 to 1,368 in artillery (850 inferior Italian pieces), and 1,230 to 490 in tanks. Furthermore, only 210 Axis tanks were German. Of these only 30 were the Panzer IVF2 "specials" with the long barreled 75mm gun competitive against the 422 Shermans and Grants supplied to the British by the Americans. Even worse, though German anti-tank guns could handle American made Shermans and Grants; the Italian anti-tank guns could not.
In October 1942 the Eighth Army fielded three corps opposing Rommel's defensive positions. At the front and running from north to south Montgomery deployed the XXX Corps (five infantry divisions), and the XIII Corps (44th Division, 50th Division, 7th Armored Division, 1st Free French Brigade). Montgomery held his X Corps in reserve (two armored divisions) to exploit penetrations in the Axis front wrought by his assault divisions (1st South African, 2nd New Zealand, 9th Australian, and the British 51st Highland). In addition, X Corps was tasked with holding off Rommel's panzers while Montgomery's other large units annihilated the Axis infantry.
For his part, Rommel had deployed his infantry in a deep linear defensive position with German units bracketing Italian units for greater cohesion. Immense minefields also protected the Axis defensive positions. Rommel deployed the Axis armor (15th Panzer Division, 21st Panzer Division, Ariete Armored Division, and Littorio Armored Division) to the north and south in pairs. Behind the northern defensive shoulder sat the 15th Panzer and Littorio divisions, and behind the southern defensive shoulder waited the 21st Panzer with Ariete divisions. Rommel believed such a deployment would best allow him to parry the British main thrust when identified.
The highly anticipated Allied assault began under the bright moon light on the night of October 23rd, at 10:40 P.M. The assault commenced with a massive artillery barrage, featuring 892 guns. Montgomery's firing plan dictated each shell from these guns would land on their target simultaneously; this tactic produced a devastating shock effect that crippled numerous Axis defensive positions. In addition, British bombers flew throughout the night to strike at the Axis defenders. Many Axis artillery positions, communications, and defensive positions disappeared under the weight of the assault. Montgomery had one goal; wear down Rommel's defenses with the firepower reigning down on the Axis front line soldiers.
Near non-existent stocks of artillery ammunition dictated a negligible Axis response to the initial bombardment. More importantly, Rommel's dire fuel reserves limited his mobility, and thus crippled his best asset at his greatest time of need. Meanwhile, the key to Montgomery's eventual success at Alamein occurred far out to sea when the British sank two Axis merchant ships on October 26th. These ships carried a combined 4,000 tons of fuel and 1,000 tons of ammunition Rommel had desperately needed to fight the battle. Thus, Rommel was forced, during the fortnight at Alamein to limit his large-scale counterattacks, thereby leaving the initiative firmly in British hands. With Rommel's lost ability to maneuver, it was only a matter of time before Montgomery's carefully applied pressure cracked an Axis army ill prepared to fight in place. Moreover, ULTRA intercepts further telegraphed Rommel's moves to Montgomery and worsened the Axis situation.
In spite of the Allies overwhelming numerical advantages they still failed to achieve a quick victory. For two weeks, the opposing armies battled back and forth. Finally, on November 4, 1942 Rommel received permission to withdraw. By this stage of the battle, he had only 20 tanks left against Montgomery's 600, his infantry had taken a fearful beating and further resistance was pointless. All things considered the Axis forces fought well at El Alamein, including the often maligned Italian infantry (most notably in the Bologna and Trento Divisions) - who held their positions for far longer than they should have given their lack of modern heavy weapons; particularly anti-tank guns. Nevertheless, the British Commonwealth forces had broken the Axis positions, captured over 30,000 Axis troops at El Alamein and crippled the vaunted Afrika Corps.
by Steven Douglas Mercatante