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The Battle of El Alamein (November - December 1942)

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A reconstruction of the Battle of El Alamein.

The Battle of El Alamein was a decisive moment in World War II. After the humiliation of Dunkirk and the fall of France, the British army could now only stand up against the might of the Axis forces in the desert of North Africa. For over two years, the line of battle had swayed back and forth across the Libyan and Egyptian coastlines. Both the British and Axis armies had suffered defeats and won victories in equal measure. Now, with their backs against the Suez Canal, an Army of the British Empire was ready to finally drive the Axis forces out of North Africa and regain the fighting reputation of the British Soldier.

Before the Battle

In late 1942, the British Army in Egypt was in a precarious situation. After missing several opportunities to drive the Italian and then the German forces out of North Africa1, the British had been pushed back to the last defendable position before Cairo and the Suez Canal by the famous (or infamous) German commander Erwin Rommel. The campaign had initially been started by the Italians in an attempt to drive the British out of Egypt, but Rommel and the Afrika Korps had been sent to North Africa to aid their allies. Although in some areas they were inferior to the British forces, the Axis forces used superior tactics, introduced by Rommel, to out-manoeuvre their opponents on several occasions. Now, in 1942, he had the chance to drive the British out of North Africa and threaten the precious oilfields of the Middle East.

The British position was now centred on a small unknown railway town called El Alamein. The British Army had previously been outflanked by Rommel's fast panzer divisions, but this would be impossible at El Alamein, as the southern flank was protected by an impassable piece of salt marsh known as the Qattara Depression, where tanks could not go. With the northern flank protected by the sea, Rommel was left with no other option but to attempt to attack the British head-on. The new British commander, a little-known and inexperienced desert campaigner called Bernard Montgomery, knew this. He also had plenty of time to organise the British forces to meet this attack. Rommel began the attack with an armoured drive through the British line. Initially this proved successful and Rommel's tanks advanced several miles into the British lines, but they were then counted by a prepared anti-tank position and by the British dominance of the air. The push soon ground to a halt. Without the necessary fuel to withdraw, Rommel dug in at El Alamein and waited for reinforcements that were to be made available with a German victory at the planned Kursk offensive on the Eastern front.

Montgomery was obviously quite happy with Rommel's decision and was in no hurry to counter-attack and regain the lost land, much to the dismay and annoyance of Churchill. At this time, Churchill was under pressure by Stalin and his British supporters to do more to aid the Soviet Union's war against Germany and open a second front. Churchill desperately needed a victory in North Africa to show that this was unnecessary and that the British were already doing their part. However, Montgomery was not to be swayed. He had realised that the see-saw nature of the North African campaign was caused by the logistical problems that were inherent in the conflict. Both sides relied on a single access point for the bulk of their supplies, located at either end the conflict zone: Tripoli for the Axis powers and Alexandria for the British. These two ports are connected only by a small coastal road, which is long and can be easily disrupted with aircraft. This meant that, as any one side advanced, its supplies became less reliable, while the enemy's situation improved. So, like being tied to a piece of elastic, each side eventually was pulled back to its home port. Montgomery was aware of this and decided that the only way to break the cycle was to wait and stockpile enough supplies to take him all the way to Tripoli. At the same time, he would try to make the German forces steadily weaker through naval and air blockade. So, the British Army would wait at El Alamein, re-organise itself and, most importantly, train.

The Battle

By November 1942, the British Army, including Polish, Greek and Free French contingents, had trained hard and were finally ready to begin the coming offensive. However, it was not going to be easy. The Germans had not been wasting their time either. Rommel was in a tricky situation. The supplies he needed to continue his push east were coming in much too slowly and he knew that the British would be ready before him. Therefore, Rommel had spent the time planting hundreds of thousands of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in front of dug-in prepared positions for anti-tank guns. He was an expert at using anti-tank guns effectively and he knew that the mines would funnel the British into his guns' sights. Aware of the enemy's activities, Montgomery adopted First World War tactics as a way of breaking through the Germans. This entailed using a massive artillery bombardment to disrupt and pin down the Germans, while sappers created lanes in the mines to allow the British armour to break through to the German lines. As such, the coming offensive was ironically called 'Operation Lightfoot', an example of the dark humour of the British military.

In line with the plan, the battle began with a massive bombardment. Not since the terrible days on the Western front in 1918 had either army seen such an amount of shell fire. Meanwhile, the British sappers slowly crawled forward into the minefield, clearing paths for the tanks. Some used the new metal detectors, but these were proving to be unreliable and so the majority had to use their bayonets to slowly prod their way along. This activity did not go unnoticed by the Germans, who realised the purpose of these paths in their minefields. When the British tanks began to creep forward in the confined lanes, they were instantly met by very accurate German artillery fire, devastating the British armoured forces and halting the British advance before it really began. Rommel's battle plan was proving to be a success. He had repulsed the larger numbers of British tanks and he could now force Montgomery to call off his offensive.

The offensive was originally envisaged as one bombardment and then an armoured breakthrough, but it turned into an infantry battle of attrition, a true hark back to the days of World War I. Over the next week or so the British infantry engaged the Axis forces, slowly wearing them out and pushing them back, all while enlarging the gaps in the minefield. It was at this time that the charismatic Rommel had to return to Germany due to an illness. Believing that the situation was relatively stable, he left his deputy to command the remainder of the battle. This proved to be unfortunate, because at this moment the attritional nature of the battle had finally produced an opportunity for the British forces. The more intense fighting at the southern end of the battle was drawing in increasing numbers of German forces while making the northern end dangerously weak. Montgomery saw an opportunity and managed to refocus the campaign. He launched a fresh push in the north which the Axis forces had no chance of stopping.

By now, Rommel had returned from Germany and quickly assessed the situation. With the British armour having finally broken through the German lines, he had no choice but to disengage and retreat from Egypt. In an instant, the stalemate had turned into a German disaster. The retreat out of Egypt quickly turned into a complete retreat out of Libya, with Tobruk and Benghazi falling to the British for the final time. Yet throughout this evacuation, the German forces managed to maintain good order and fighting ability. It has been said - now and at the time - that Montgomery let this happen by not driving harder against the retreating Germans and destroying the Afrika Korps once and for all. Montgomery had decided that he would follow behind the retreating Germans at a safe distance, which was typical of the systematic and cautious approach he had towards war-fighting. He wanted this to be the final advance of the campaign. This would prove to be true when the British finally entered Tripoli on New Year's Eve, 1942, thus ending the threat to the British in Egypt. Not long after, the allies also launched Operation Torch. This was the landing of American and British forces in what was then French Algiers. The Vichy forces posted there, after some initial confusion and exchange of fire, soon joined the Allied forces. Soon they were all driving east, leaving only Tunisia in Axis hands.

This conclusion to the battle, although close at times, was never really in doubt from the onset. Even if Rommel had managed to halt the British at El Alamein, the landings in Algiers would have forced him to fight a campaign on two fronts against a force with vast resources. This would have been impossible because of the underlying problem that Rommel faced right from the start: the fighting in North Africa was always regarded by Hitler and the German High Command as a sideshow campaign against the all-important fighting on the Eastern front. As long as they got along with it, the Afrika Korps was pretty much left to get along with it and was hardly ever considered in Hitler's overall war strategy. This is the reason Rommel always lacked the strategic support — in terms of air and maritime power — and the supplies he needed to bring about final victory. It should also be noted that the campaign was first an Italian undertaking: initiated by them and using up vast numbers of their military forces. North Africa had no real vital resources for the German economy and even though it led to the invasion of Italy, the following Italian campaign only managed to tie up desperately needed Allied resources.

After the Battle

The battle of El Alamein was undoubtedly a major victory for the allies in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The defence of Egypt was of vital importance to the Allied war effort. It not only allowed total free access to the Suez Canal for Allied shipping, which was of special importance now that the war had taken on a global nature, but it also stopped the Germans from threatening the Middle-Eastern oil fields, a major supplier of Allied oil reserves. The victory, coupled with joint Allied landings in French Algiers, also finally spelled the elimination of an Axis presence in North Africa and ended the Italian dreams of a 'new Roman Empire'. There were also strategic implications: the defeat in North Africa began the series of events that led the invasion of mainland Italy and the toppling of the Italian dictator Mussolini. This brought the Italians onto the Allies' side and left Germany at a strategic disadvantage across the whole of the Mediterranean. Yet, with all this having been said, the most important outcome of the battle was that it was a huge victory for the British Army, something that was a long time coming and which finally dispelled the stigma of the defeats in 1940 and 1941. The victory boosted the fighting spirit of the British and Commonwealth soldiers and would prove their worth in the coming final defeat of Germany. This was especially important, since from now on they would be fighting alongside the American forces that eventually made up the majority of the manpower.

Looking at the effect of the Battle of El Alamein on the overall outcome of the war, it can be concluded that even though it was an important victory for the British Army, it had little effect on the German war effort. Compared to the numbers fighting on the Eastern Front and the numbers preparing for the liberation of France, defeat in North Africa would not have forced either side to surrender. It appears that World War II would only be decided on the plains in Russia and the fields in France.

1On two occasions British forces were transferred out of the region to reinforce other fronts — just as they were on the verge of final victory, once to Greece in 1940 and then to the Far East in 1942.

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