El Alamein: the line in the sand

No more reverses. That was the message that the British Eighth Army carried into the second battle of El Alamein in October 1942. What happened next transformed British fortunes in the desert war. But, asks James Holland, did victory come at too high a price?

El Alamein battle in the Libyan desert, c1942. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

At around 9.40pm on Friday 23 October 1942, Flight Lieutenant Tommy Thompson, a Battle of Britain and Malta veteran, was flying over the Alamein line on his return from a strafing mission. Suddenly, the guns below opened up and it seemed to Thompson that one massive flash of fire had erupted in a long line. Mesmerised, he circled around at just 3,000 feet and watched. Further away he spotted a wave of bombers pounding enemy positions too. “A magnificent sight,” he recalled. “What an artillery battle.”

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On the ground, 22-year-old Corporal Albert Martin of 2nd Battalion, Rifle Brigade had never heard anything like it in the two long years he’d been in the desert. He’d been feeling on edge and nervy all day, knowing they would be going into battle that night and that it would be a tough fight. One hundred and sixteen thousand Germans and Italians were dug in behind millions of mines, thick entanglements of wire, and supported by guns, tanks, machine-guns and mortars.

Nor was Martin pleased about his role. The Rifle Brigade had been used to independence and mobility, beetling about the desert in trucks. That night, as the battle began, their job was to protect the engineers as they cleared six paths through the minefields. It was through these lanes, each the width of a tennis court, that the mass of armour was due to pour, get in behind the enemy and then exploit their advantage.

As Martin listened to the deafening blast of 900 guns, and felt the shockwaves pulsing through the ground, he knew the wait was over. As the gunners’ loading rhythm changed, so the sky became a kaleidoscope of flickering colour. The second battle of Alamein had begun, and if successful, as the British Eighth Army commander General Montgomery had assured them it would be, then the Germans and Italians could be driven from all of Africa for good.

Lieutenant General B L Montgomery, 5 November 1942. (Photo by Capt. G Keating/ IWM via Getty Images)
Lieutenant General B L Montgomery, 5 November 1942. (Photo by Capt. G Keating/ IWM via Getty Images)

Bickering and bellyaching

Eighth Army had undergone quite some transformation since ignominious defeats at Gazala and Tobruk back in June. However, it was not poor equipment or training – as some claimed at the time, and have done ever since – that caused these reverses, but rather poor generalship. Neil Ritchie, the Eighth Army commander, had been over-promoted, and had no control or authority over his subordinates, who were all bickering. Indecision and lack of clear thinking led to an entirely unnecessary disaster.

In contrast, the RAF in the Middle East was ably led by Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, while his subordinate, Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham, had shown the dynamic leadership that had been so lacking in his army colleagues.

The British finally halted German general Erwin Rommel’s dramatic advance at the Alamein position, but a clear-out of senior commanders was now urgently required. Out went General Auchinleck, the commander-in-chief Middle East, and so too did a host of other commanders, Ritchie included. In their stead came General Sir Harold Alexander as C-in-C and General Bernard Montgomery as the new Eighth Army Commander. In August 1942, they were the right team and both utterly committed to ensuring there were no more reverses. Both also recognised that the biggest problem for Eighth Army was one of morale, and one that needed righting quickly.

Alexander was the most experienced battlefield commander of any side in the war, having commanded in action at every rank. He’d even led German troops in the Baltic Landwehr against Russia in 1920. Utterly imperturbable, charming, and full of good judgment, he understood all facets of war and both protected his army commander from interference from London and oversaw the swift build-up of supplies in Egypt. Montgomery, meanwhile, was highly capable, no-nonsense and a fine trainer of men. He did not tolerate ‘bellyaching’, as he called it, which was what was needed at that time.

A dash for Tunis

At the end of August, when Rommel made his last attempt to break the Alamein position, Montgomery fought a good defensive battle and sensibly resisted the urge to counterattack in turn. Unlike Ritchie and Auchinleck, he also worked closely and well with Coningham and the RAF; the defensive victory at Alan Halfa, as the battle became known, belonged as much to the RAF as it did Eighth Army. Monty also recognised, as Alexander had realised, that nothing less than a decisive victory would do in their next engagement. For that to happen, he argued, more tanks, guns and men were needed – and his troops required more training.

Immense pressure was being put on Alexander to launch the battle as soon as possible; at the same time, preparations were under way for a joint Anglo-US invasion force to land in north-west Africa, overrun the Vichy French in Algeria and Morocco and then make a dash for Tunis. The aim was for the Axis forces in Africa to be crushed by a two-pronged attack from west and east. But the destruction of Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika now at Alamein was to happen first.

Montgomery insisted his attack could not be launched before October. Eventually, it was agreed that Eighth Army’s assault would begin on the night of 23 October, when there was a full moon. His plan was to punch two holes through the Axis defences, one in the north of the 40-mile line and another further south. The northern breach was to be the main one and was also where the enemy defences were strongest, but Monty wanted to hit Rommel head-on. His XXX Corps was to punch this hole to a depth of 3–5 miles through two channels each of three lanes. Through these narrow lanes, X Corps was to pass and burst out into the open desert beyond. British tanks would hold the inferior numbers of Axis tanks at bay while the infantry destroyed the enemy infantry through a process Monty called ‘crumbling’. Meanwhile, XIII Corps would break through in the south and split the Axis forces in half.

Armoured break-out

Every man rehearsed the process over and over. Deception plans were also brought into play and Montgomery placed a huge reliance, as ever, on the increasingly dependable RAF and his artillery. Overwhelming firepower was the name of the game.

Monty reckoned this would take about 10 days. The first part was the ‘break-in’. Then came the ‘dogfight’ – the slogging grind of enemy forces. Last would come the ‘break-out’ by the armour to secure victory.

Broadly, this was what happened, although inevitably there were twists and turns and setbacks, not least on the opening night. Pouring masses of armour through six lanes, each only 8 yards wide, was ambitious, especially in the north where the desert soil was fine sand. The tracks of hundreds of tanks, tow-to-tail, quickly ground the sand as fine as talcum powder, which combined with immense amounts of smoke to cloak the battlefield. Corporal Albert Martin had little idea of what was going on and was soon caked in choking dust and could see little. Nor could the tanks, which began crashing into one another and over-heating.

Supercharged advance

Then the enemy guns, apparently not remotely destroyed, opened up. By dawn, much of the British armour was exposed in the open. “It was quite one of the worst moments of my life,” noted Major Stanley Christopherson, commander of A Squadron, the Sherwood Rangers. “I couldn’t go forward, but all the heavy tanks were behind me so I couldn’t go back… we just had to sit there.” He survived, although many of his crews were not so fortunate.

The battle ground on over the ensuing days. Despite the success of the Australians in the very north, Monty paused on 26 October. Meanwhile, Albert Martin and his comrades in the Rifle Brigade had become temporary anti-tank gunners and, having edged forward overnight on 28 October, woke to find themselves confronting the main Axis panzer counterattack. It was to prove a decisive day as they stubbornly held their ground and knocked out 70 enemy tanks and self-propelled guns. How he’d managed to survive that ordeal, he had no idea.

Early on 2 November, Montgomery relaunched his attack, codenamed Supercharge. In essence, it was more of the same, but it did what the opening phase had failed to do: break the back of the Panzerarmee’s defence.

The end was now in sight. “The battle is going heavily against us,” Rommel wrote to his wife on 3 November. “We’re simply being crushed by the enemy weight.” That summed it up neatly. Superior numbers, superior firepower and the relentless air assault by the RAF had bludgeoned Rommel’s forces into a terminal defeat. By 4 November, the Panzerarmee was on the run, streaming back west across the desert.

The battle of Alamein was the first decisive land victory by the British against German forces and came less than two-and-a-half years after the catastrophic defeat of France and the retreat of the BEF from Dunkirk. Back then, Britain’s army had been tiny. Its growth since had been impressive.

Alexander and Montgomery’s victory had also showed that, despite the defeat at Gazala four months earlier, there was much already in place that Britain was getting right: decent equipment, determined troops, an increasingly effective tactical air force and a greater dependence on technology and firepower, all of which played to British strengths.

The biggest beef

But, for all that the British Army was a transformed force, the second battle of El Alamein was a flawed victory. There’s little doubt that, though it made a hero of Monty, it was a tactically turgid campaign – one that wasted lives and materiel.

General Francis Tuker had commanded the 4th Indian Division at Alamein and was one of the brightest, yet most under-used, commanders the British had. Earlier in the year, with Rommel on the charge, he suggested to Auchinleck and Ritchie that, rather than falling back to the Alamein line, it made far more sense for Eighth Army to establish their defensive position at Tobruk , which had an open supply line to the sea and which had withstood all the enemy had thrown at it during a siege that had lasted half the previous year. As he pointed out, Rommel could not simply bypass such a bastion. Tuker was right, but his good advice was ignored, and the Eighth Army almost annihilated.

Montgomery never asked his advice before the second battle of Alamein, but Tuker was firmly of the view that it made sense to strike a heavy blow with infantry, supported by artillery on a narrow front in the north, around a feature or ridge that meant the Panzerarmee simply had to counterattack. The key, he reckoned, was to draw in the bulk of the Axis armour in the north.

While most of the Panzerarmee’s armour and artillery was caught up with this attack, Tuker would have made a second thrust simultaneously in the centre of the line with the bulk of the armour, where the defences were not as strong. This plan made good sense.

Tuker’s biggest beef with Monty’s ideas, however, was over his fire plan at the start of the battle. Of the 900 field guns available, Monty only employed 400 in support of the main thrust in the north – that is, less than half. That meant that 500 guns were not being used in the main thrust, while more than 300 were available to support the feint thrust of XIII Corps to the south.

Perhaps more inexplicable, though, was the way in which the guns were used. A central tenet of war is the concentration of force.

For all his new stamp and fighting talk, Montgomery dispersed his firepower not only in terms of its spread along the length of their line, but also in the way the guns were fired. Those 400 in the north were spread over 10 miles, with just 100 guns supporting each of the four attacking divisions. That wasn’t very many, especially since they were mostly firing straight ahead. A far better plan would have been to have attacked over, say, 5 miles, with 750 guns firing in concentration.

So the second battle of El Alamein wasn’t the masterpiece that has often been portrayed, and it could be argued that the Eighth Army paid far too high a price for victory. This won’t, of course, prevent it from being remembered as a turning point in the war in north Africa – and nor should it, for

El Alamein set the British on the path to the capture of Tunis six months later. Here, in a triumph that would secure victory in north Africa, Allied troops captured or killed 250,000 Axis troops and seized a vast amount of enemy materiel. In doing so, they inflicted a bigger material defeat on the Germans than the one at Stalingrad three months earlier.

James Holland is an author, historian and broadcaster. His books include The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History (Corgi, 2011).

The war in the sun 10 milestones on the road to El Alamein

1) Mussolini goes on the attack

The Italian leader declared war on Britain in June 1940 and began desultory attacks on the British island of Malta lying at the heart of the Mediterranean.

On 4 July the British destroyed the French fleet at Oran on the coast of French Algeria – to prevent it from falling into German hands – and on the 9th the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet fought the Italians at the battle of Calabria.

2) The Italians are put to flight

In September 1940, the Italian Tenth Army advanced into Egypt. In October, the Italians also invaded Greece, but were swiftly repulsed.

On 9 December, the 36,000-strong Western Desert Force under General Richard O’Connor counterattacked in Egypt and over the next three months routed Tenth Army and much of the Italian Fifth Army, capturing 131,000 men out of 160,000 Italian troops in north Africa. British forces also attacked Italian forces in Abyssinia, east Africa. Cut off from all but air supply, the Italians were soon in retreat.

3) The Germans enter the fray

In February 1941, Hitler sent General Erwin Rommel with two divisions of the newly formed Afrikakorps to Tripoli to stiffen the Italian forces there. In April, German forces invaded Yugoslavia, quickly overran the country and then advanced into Greece.

4) Rommel sweeps all before him

Having forced the Italians back to El Agheila halfway to Tripoli, British troops were withdrawn from the Western Desert Force and sent to Greece. It was too little too late and, lacking strong enough air support, Greece soon befell the same fate as Yugoslavia. In north Africa, Rommel advanced well beyond his orders, recapturing Cyrenaica, pushing the British back into Egypt, and besieging the port of Tobruk.

5) The Germans capture Crete

The majority of British troops were safely evacuated from Greece but, in the third week of May, German airborne troops attacked Crete. Fatal errors of judgment by the commander of Creforce, New Zealander General Bernard Freyberg, and the local commanders at Maleme airfield, ensured the Germans got a toehold they were then able to exploit, albeit at considerable cost and just a few weeks before their invasion of the Soviet Union. Crete fell to the Germans and, though most British troops were evacuated, the Royal Navy suffered considerable losses.

6) Auchinleck is thrown into the fray

In June 1941, the British counterattacked the German-Italian forces in Egypt but made little headway and General Wavell, C-in-C Middle East, was sacked and replaced by General Claude Auchinleck. In June, British and Free French troops attacked Vichy-French Syria and, by July, had obtained its surrender. Pro-German revolts in Iraq and Iran were also quelled.

7) The Eighth Army pummels Rommel

In November, the newly formed Eighth Army counterattacked Rommel’s forces in north Africa. Weakened after three-quarters of his supplies had been destroyed by mostly Malta-based aircraft, ships and submarines, Rommel’s army was pushed back and Tobruk relieved.

8) Bombs rain down on Malta

At the end of 1941, Field Marshal Kesselring had been made C-in-C of Axis forces in the south and, recognising that Malta needed to be neutralised, began an aerial blitz of the island. By April, Malta had become the most-bombed place on Earth. But a planned invasion was postponed.

9) The British face annihilation

Rommel’s German-Italian Panzerarmee counterattacked again on 26 May, smashing the Gazala Line and capturing Tobruk on 21 June 1942 in what was unquestionably one of the worst-conducted battles the British fought in the entire war. Eighth Army, now in full retreat to the Alamein Line just 60 miles from Alexandria, was only saved from annihilation by the round-the-clock effort of the RAF’s Desert Air Force. Eighth Army commander General Neil Ritchie was sacked and Auchinleck took over direct command.

10) Standstill in the sand

The Alamein Line, unlike elsewhere in north Africa, could not be easily outflanked because of the deep Qattara Depression escarpment 40 miles to the south. In the first battle of El Alamein Rommel tried to force his way through but in a series of clashes that raged through the month of July, neither side was able to force a decisive outcome. Stalemate ensued – until the second battle of El Alamein

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This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine