Mersa Matruh and the Limits of Rommel's Panzerarmee
The days and weeks following the British led Eighth Army’s spring 1942 defeats at Gazala and Tobruk, followed up by the long retreat east has often been held up by some as one of the key points in the war when the Axis could have achieved perhaps a decisive victory in North Africa and severed the British Empire’s jugular at the Suez Canal.
In reality, the otherwise triumphant German General Erwin Rommel and his Panzerarmee Afrika hardly possessed the logistical backing or combat capability to accomplish such a goal. For instance, the fighting at Gazala and Tobruk had left his command significantly denuded in combat strength; particularly in regards to German tanks. Moreover, by the time Rommel reached El Alamein, early in July, he barely maintained his army’s strength at the end of a tenuous supply line stretching for 750 miles by road alone east from Benghazi. One hardly need to look further than the the battle of Mersa Matruh for a salient example as to why Rommel’s ability to move on Suez was decidedly questionable following the Eighth Army’s defeats earlier in June.
On June 26-27 Rommel attempted to take the Eighth Army’s defensive positions at Mersa Matruh on the run. Set up by the Eighth Army’s commander, Lieutenant-General Neil Ritchie, these defenses would subsequently be only lightly defended by his June 25th replacement - General Claude Auchinleck – his former superior who had assumed direct command of Eighth Army in response to Ritchie’s poor performance. The British defensive position thus really became a holding position as Auchinleck sought to retreat further east. As a result when Rommel launched the German 90th Light Division and 21st Panzer Division through the center of the British defenses they met only light resistance.
The incredibly weak German divisions, the 90th Light could only deploy 1,500 infantry, quickly curled around the British flanks and by June 27th the 90th Light had “surrounded” the British X Corps (the 10th Indian and British 50th Division) on the British northern defensive shoulder. Meanwhile the British General William Gott began to pull back his command on the southern wing, the XIII Corps, even as the British 1st Armoured Division’s Grant tanks pounded the 15th Panzer Division (as did British anti-tank guns: see the image attached of a British truck-mounted anti-tank gun somewhere in the desert on July 26, 1942). Unfortunately, this left the X Corps to attempt to withdraw on its own. Therefore, although the German 90th Light Division was far too weak to stop the British, the Eighth Army had again suffered heavy casualties; including losing another 6,000-8,000 prisoners of war, as it again retreated east. Nonetheless, and thereafter Rommel’s Panzerarmee only weakened by the day.
For his part Auchinleck was determined to halt Rommel. He ordered his beleaguered army to finally dig in at El Alamein. El Alamein served as the last natural defensive position to the Nile River’s west, and stood only 60 miles west of Alexandria’s critical naval base and deep-water port. The massive Qattara Depression to El Alamein’s south and the coast to the north meant the German could not outflank British positions and this provided El Alamein with its primary defensive advantage. There the Eighth Army threw back repeated Axis attacks beginning on June 30th when Rommel attempt to repeat his bold move at Mersa Matruh. Though the Axis drive on Suez would not be conclusively defeated until later that fall, it had already reached its culmination point early in July 1942.