Fought near the western frontier of Egypt between 23 October and 4 November 1942, El Alamein was the climax and turning point of the North African campaign of World War Two (1939-45). The Axis army of Italy and Germany suffered a decisive defeat by the British Eighth Army.
Conflict in North Africa had been ignited in 1940 by Italy’s invasion of Egypt from its colony of Libya. This threatened Britain’s vital strategic assets, the Suez Canal and Persian oil fields. However, when the Italians were defeated, Germany intervened on behalf of its ally in the spring of 1941.
Under the bold leadership of General Rommel, the Axis enjoyed startling successes, recapturing Libya and threatening Egypt. Yet, by late 1941, when Rommel’s forces had overstretched their supply lines, they were forced to fall back in the face of a determined British offensive. In 1942 a revived Axis effort saw Rommel defeat the British at Gazala and capture Tobruk.
The Eighth Army was in a sorry state after its mauling at Gazala, but despite German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s confidence, the British now held the best defensive position along the entire North African coast. The El Alamein ‘Line’ stretched 40 miles from the sea on one side to the Qattara Depression on the other, which meant that it was virtually impossible to outflank. Only a frontal attack could break through the line.
The assault to become known as the First Battle of Alamein was a disaster for the Allies. Their attempts to break through enemey lines were thrown back by heavy losses and Field Marshall Auchinleck was forced to report back to Whitehall that he had to resume the defensive. Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself flew out to Egypt to inspect the posisiotn on 5th August.
He decided to replace Auchinleck with General Sir Harold Alexander and entrusted the leadership of the Eighth Army in the field to General Gott. Before he could resume the post, however, Gott was killed when his aircraft was shot down and Churchill made what was to prove a momentous decision – he replaced him with Lieutenant-General Bernard Law Montgomery.
Montgomery takes control
Lieutenant-General Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976) was one of the most capable and controversial British commanders. At Alamein he commanded over 190,000 men from across the British Empire, Greece, Poland and France. They were equipped with over 1,000 tanks, 900 artillery pieces and 1,400 anti-tank guns, and following a failed operation from Rommel in September, he had time to carry out a well-planned offensive, designed to rid North Africa of the ‘Desert Fox’ (a.k.a. Rommel) once and for all.
Second Battle of El Alamein: 23rd October 1942
Having assembled a powerful multinational Allied force, Montgomery unleashed his offensive on the night of 23th October at exactly 9.40pm, with a spectacular artillery barrage. In the early hours of 24th October British infantry and engineers began Operation Lightfoot, a painstaking and hazardous process of creating two channels in the minefields, through which the armoured forces were to advance.
The British then established a forward line from where the Axis forces would be engaged and worn down. This battle of attrition, euphemistically termed ‘crumbling’ by Montgomery, involved brutal close-quarter fighting in which the soldiers were tested in a maelstrom of heat, noise and horror.
While they were able to beat off Axis counter-attacks, British efforts were hampered as their tanks were held up in the congested minefield corridors and suffered punishing losses from enemy anti-tank guns.
The operation commenced with another massive artillery barrage at 1 am on 2nd November, the revitalised New Zealanders clearing a 400-yard gap in the Axis lines. Then the tanks of 9th Armoured Brigade rolled forward. Silhouetted against the rising sun, the British tanks were like ducks in a shooting gallery to the German 88mm field guns, and seventy were destroyed in an hour. The rest of the day saw a fierce but inconclusive struggle in which both sides suffered heavy losses.
By 8.15 on November 3rd, low on ammunition and petrol, Rommel decided he had no option but to retreat. Hitler ordered him to hold fast but the Allied troops broke through his lines in several places during the night and retreat became inevitable.
El Alamein was the first clear-cut and irreversible victory inflicted by the British Army upon the Axis. Coming after years of frustrating setbacks, this was a boost to British morale. Victory proved that the problems that had plagued the Army for years had at last been overcome and that its equipment, tactics, generalship and fighting spirit were a match for the Axis.
Alamein also established the reputation of Montgomery. Using his talent for self-publicity, he claimed all the credit for the victory. This made him a household name and secured him prestigious commands in Italy and North-West Europe. While he was able to cement his image as a national hero, Montgomery’s conduct during the battle remains the subject of debate.