El Alamein Battlefield
After a successful operation against the Italians, the British weakened in Egypt by the diversion of troops to Greece. Then, in March 1941 the newly-arrived Rommel counter-attacked and recaptured much of the lost territory in Libya and Egypt, though the important port of Tobruk, garrisoned by Australians, held out. In May a limited British offensive, code named Brevity, proved disappointing, and the large-scale offensive named Battleaxe the following month, saw the loss of 220 British tanks to only 25 German.
In July 1941 Sir Archibald Wavell, the Allied Commander in the Middle East, was replaced by General Sir Claude Auchinleck, and in November, the 8th Army at last mounted a successful offensive named Operation Crusader, which relieved Tobruk and pushed on to El Agheila.
But Rommel was not slow in striking back, first in an offensive which took him to a line just west of Tobruk and then, in a complex, swirling action between Gazala and the desert outpost of Bir Hacheim, in a battle which eventually saw the 8th Army in full retreat.
So Tobruk fell. Churchill called the loss ‘one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war’. The British did not stop retreating until they reached a position covering the 30 miles of desert between the impassable Qattara Depressionand the coast, where the road and railway run through the little village of El Alamein.
The Battle of El Alamein, fought in the deserts of North Africa, is seen as one of the decisive victories of World War Two for the Allies. It was primarily fought between two of the outstanding commanders of World War II, Montgomery, who replaced Auchinleck, after the latter’s lackluster performance, and Rommel. The Allied victory at El Alamein lead to the retreat of the Afrika Korps and the German surrender in North Africa in May 1943.
El Alamein is located about 150 miles northwest of Cairo. By the summer of 1942, the Allies were in trouble throughout Europe. An attack on Russia named Operation Barbarossa had pushed the Russians back; U-boats were having a major effect on Britain in the Battle of the Atlantic and western Europe seemed to be fully in the control of the Germans.
Hence the war in the desert of North Africa was pivotal. If the Afrika Korps got to the Suez Canal, the ability of the Allies to supply themselves would be severely limited. The only alternate supply route would be by way of South Africa, which was not only longer but a lot more dangerous due to the vagaries of the weather. The psychological blow of losing the Suez and losing in North Africa would have been incalculable, especially considering that Germany would have had almost unlimited access to the oil reserves of the Middle East.
Therefore, El Alamein was a last stand for the Allies in North Africa. To the north of this apparently unremarkable town was the Mediterranean Sea and to the south was the Qattara Depression. El Alamein was a bottleneck that forced Rommel away from his favored form of attack, sweeping into the enemy from the rear. Rommel was a well respected general in the ranks of the Allies. The Allied commander at the time, Claude Auchinleck, did not command the same respect among his own men.
In August 1942, Winston Churchill was desperate for a victory as he believed that morale was being sapped from the Britain people. Churchill, despite his status, even faced the prospect of a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons if there were no forthcoming victories. He therefore fired Auchinleck and replaced him with Bernard Montgomery, who had much more respect from his men. “Monty” was described as “as quick as a ferret and about as likeable.” But above all else, he knew that he needed to hold El Alamein anyway possible.
Rommel planned to hit the Allies in the south. Montgomery guessed that this would be the Rommal’s move. It was the same tactic that Rommel had used before in the first Battle of El Alamein and he was also aided by British Intelligence who had got hold of Rommel’s battle plan and deciphered it. Therefore Monty knew not only Rommel’s plan but also the route of his supply lines. By August 1942, only 33% of what Rommel needed was getting through to him. Rommel was also acutely aware that while he was being starved of supplies, the Allies were getting vast amounts through as they still controlled the Suez and were dominant in the Mediterranean. To resolve what could only become a more difficult situation, Rommel decided to attack quickly, even if he was not well equipped.
However, by the end of August 1942, Montgomery was also ready for battle. He knew that Rommel was very short of fuel and that the Germans could not sustain a long campaign. Legend has it that when Rommel started his offensive, Montgomery was asleep. When he was woken from his sleep to be told the news, it is said that he replied “excellent, excellent” and went back to sleep again.
The Allies had placed a huge number of land mines south of El Alamein at Alam Halfa. German Panzer tanks suffered considerable damage from these and the rest were held up and became sitting targets for Allied fighter planes that could easily pick off tank after tank. Rommel’s attack started badly and it seemed as if his Afrika Korps would be wiped out. But he ordered his tanks north and he was then helped out by nature. A sandstorm blew up which gave his tanks much needed cover from marauding British fighters. However, once the sandstorm cleared, Rommel’s forces were once pounded by Allied bombers. Rommel had no choice but to retreat. He fully expected Montgomerys Eighth Army to follow him as this was standard military procedure, but that was not to happen. Monty was not ready for an offensive and he ordered his men to stay put while they held a decisive defensive line.