El Alamein: The British empire's last hurrah
The victory at El Alamein was hailed as the greatest British military triumph since Waterloo. But, argues Niall Barr, it also brought the curtain down on the largest imperial project in history
The barren sands around the tiny railway halt of El Alamein, 60 miles west of the Egyptian city of Alexandria, were eerily quiet throughout the long hot day of 23 October 1942. It would have been difficult to imagine that the sands contained two armies both dug-in, hiding from the sun and one another, and that one of those armies was poised to strike. The sun sets quickly in Egypt and, as darkness fell like a curtain, the great military machine which was the British 8th Army sprang into life.
The 8th Army had contested the sands of Libya and Egypt with the Axis forces of Italy and Germany for more than two years. The desert had seen many seesaw battles fought among swirling clouds of dust and confusion and there had been many swings of fortune, with the advantage passing first one way and then the other. During these battles it was the Axis commander, Erwin Rommel, who had gained an imperishable reputation for daring, boldness and skill. Yet this coming battle, so claimed the new commander of the 8th Army, General Bernard Law Montgomery, was being fought to “hit the enemy for six out of Africa”.
Private James Crawford, an Australian soldier waiting for the order to advance, remembers the barrage that began the 8th Army’s great assault: “The whole horizon to the east spewed heavenwards in a fount of orange and blood-red flame, stabbing at the sky. The thunder of the barrage… struck us, a tidal wave of sound; it hammered on our eardrums and whipped our shirts against our chests… I could hear nothing but the crashing thunder of the barrage, thunder born of the flame that was the horizon and the sky and the whole earth. All was flame and thunder, and there was no world left to us.”
This was the legendary thousand-gun barrage – the greatest of the entire desert war – which stunned the German and Italian defenders. Then, the soldiers of four infantry divisions drawn from all over the empire – Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – went into the attack to make a breach in the three-mile-deep Axis defences. With them went the sappers who had to cut gaps in the vast minefields to enable the British armour to drive through into the open desert. That, at least, was the plan. Although the infantry did tear a great hole in the Axis defences, it proved impossible to get the tanks through all in one short night.
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As the battle raged over the next 12 days, it did not resemble the swirling, moving fights of the earlier desert battles but rather the grinding, attritional struggles of endurance of the western front in the First World War.
The battle became a desperate struggle as the 8th Army tried to push through the Axis minefields – aptly named Rommel’s ‘Devil’s Gardens’ – with the Panzerarmee Afrika grimly defending its positions and mounting counterattack after counterattack to hold the British back.
When the battle began, Erwin Rommel was not in Africa: he was in Germany taking a rest cure to recover his health after two years of arduous desert fighting. It was only when his successor, Georg Stumme, was killed on 24 October that he received orders to return to El Alamein immediately.
When Rommel arrived back at his headquarters, he found a desperate situation, which he later called “a battle without hope”. Yet Montgomery was finding the battle equally difficult: every time the British tanks and infantry attempted to push forward, they met with resolute resistance, and the Axis anti-tank guns took a heavy toll on the British armour.
On 27 October, Rommel gathered his armoured reserves for an all-out counterattack – this had turned the tide in many a desert battle. Yet this time, the hammer blow fell on one isolated British battalion, the 2nd Rifle Brigade, fortunately equipped with the new six pounder anti-tank gun. Concealed among soft, hummocky sand, the British gunners took a fearful toll on the German and Italian tanks which attacked their position. By the end of the day, 2nd Rifle Brigade had destroyed at least 40 Axis tanks and Rommel’s most dangerous thrust had been held.
Meanwhile, Montgomery, frustrated at the failure of his initial plan, launched the 9th Australian Division – the legendary ‘rats of Tobruk’ – towards the coast. Over the next few days, their stubborn attacks and dogged resistance against repeated counterattacks drew the last reserves of Rommel’s army into the fiercest fighting ever witnessed at Alamein. One Australian soldier recalled that: “Dead and mutilated bodies were to be seen wherever one looked, together with burnt-out guns, tanks and weapons of all descriptions.”
The Australian fight near the coast gave Montgomery the chance to prepare a final, all-out assault – Operation Supercharge – to break Rommel’s army. This began with another artillery bombardment and infantry assault. Then, just after dawn on 2 November, the British 9th Armoured Brigade launched itself in a Balaclava charge against the remaining Axis anti-tank guns.
As the British tanks charged forwards they were met with a deluge of fire. A soldier of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry remembered the sight: “Flash, flash, flash… in a great semi-circle the guns of the enemy wink viciously… as great balls of fire seem to leap out of the sand and hurtle towards the oncoming tanks.”
In a matter of minutes, 9th Armoured Brigade lost almost all of its tanks and suffered 50 per cent casualties but its sacrifice had almost punched a gap in Rommel’s now weakened defences. That afternoon saw the greatest clash of armour at Alamein as the Afrika Korps mounted a desperate counterattack to close the breach.
The German 90th Light Division later reported that: “Smoke and dust covered the battlefield… tanks engaged in single combat; in these few hours the battle of Alamein was decided.”
By that evening, Rommel knew that he would have to retreat if he was to save his army: the Afrika Korps had just 37 tanks left. Hitler, far away in East Prussia, attempted to influence events by issuing a grandiloquent order to Rommel that he must stand fast and offer his troops no alternative but “victory or death”. The order created confusion but did not change the result: by 4 November, what was left of Rommel’s army was in full retreat covered only by a small rearguard. But this condemned the Italian infantry, left without transport or water, to capture.
As the leading elements of the 8th Army struggled to pass through the narrow minefield gaps and finally reach open desert, General von Thoma, the commander of the Afrika Korps, was captured. Montgomery thus had the satisfaction of discussing the battle with one of his key adversaries at dinner that evening.
At midnight on 4 November, the BBC was finally able to announce that “The Axis Forces in the Western Desert after 12 days and nights of ceaseless attacks by our land and air forces are now in full retreat.” The news created a sensation in Britain: Rommel, along with his legendary Afrika Korps and the rest of his Panzerarmee Afrika, had been decisively defeated.
The remnants of Rommel’s army may have managed to escape but El Alamein still represented a significant victory. Indeed, El Alamein appeared to be the greatest British victory since Waterloo – and when the news arrived in Britain it was certainly considered as such. Services of thanksgiving were held, and church bells, silent since the invasion threat of 1940, were rung in celebration of both the 8th Army’s victory and the landing of Allied troops in French North Africa (Operation Torch).
On 10 November 1942, Churchill, speaking of both Alamein and Torch, said: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Even if the Torch landings and the Soviet counter-offensive at Stalingrad in the same month were arguably more important indicators that the Germans had lost the initiative, for Churchill and the British people, El Alamein represented the turning of the tide. After such a terrible run of military humiliations, it confirmed the British people’s confidence in themselves and bolstered their battered faith that they could achieve ultimate victory. Perhaps most importantly, it restored the prestige of British arms and enabled Britain to continue as an important partner with the United States.
The battle also created a new military hero in the person of General Bernard Montgomery, who became a household name throughout Britain almost overnight.
One of the reasons why El Alamein became etched in British memory was the production of Desert Victory. This Ministry of Information film contained a mix of captured German film and staged scenes, including some filmed at Pinewood studios, but it was the actual combat footage that amazed audiences at the time. The film was a huge success in 1943 and even won an Academy Award. El Alamein had been immortalised in film and the British people could glimpse something of the reality of the battle.
Yet if the battle of Alamein represented the ‘beginning of the end’ in some ways, it can also be seen as the final closure on some important chapters in British history. The Australian official historian later mused that the forces involved in the 8th Army were “a roll-call of the empire, that grand but old-fashioned ‘British Common-wealth of Nations’, fighting its last righteous war before it was to dissolve into a shadowy illusion”.
In 1939, the assumptions that underpinned the concept of Imperial Defence – that all the constituent parts of the British empire would share the cost and burden of military defence under British leadership – had held true. Britain’s Dominions had unhesitatingly declared war in support of the ‘mother country’, even if India’s viceroy had more controversially declared war on the country’s behalf without consulting the Congress Party.
By November 1942, those assumptions had been shaken to destruction by the humiliations of two years of defeat. Even before the battle began, the Australian government had insisted that the 9th Australian Division must return home to take part in the defence of their homeland. Although soldiers, sailors and airmen from all over the British empire served in the European theatre for the rest of the war, the old certainties no longer held true. The victory at El Alamein sounded a death knell for the empire.
El Alamein marked another watershed. It was the last time in the war when an independent ‘British’ army fought and won a battle. From the moment that Operation Torch was unleashed on 8 November 1942, the British armed forces were part of a much wider alliance.
Although British forces served alongside their American counterparts throughout the rest of the war, their role was almost bound to be overshadowed by the growing might of the United States. Britain was dependent upon American largesse, through the Lend-Lease programme, to feed and clothe her population as well as continue fighting. As the war went on, Great Britain became an increasingly junior partner to the United States, which emerged from the conflict as a fully fledged ‘superpower’.
Ultimately, the victory at El Alamein ensured that the British empire would end with one last ray of military glory before the sun set on what had been the world’s largest imperial project. El Alamein, the final decisive military achievement of Britain as a great power, was also the last hurrah of the British empire. It is perhaps for this reason that a battle fought on the desolate sands of Egypt is still remembered with nostalgia and pride in Britain today.
Dr Niall Barr is reader in military history, King’s College London, based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and author of Yanks and Limeys: Alliance Warfare in the Second World War.