First Battle of El Alamein

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First Battle of El Alamein
Overview
Date July 1–26, 1942
Location N/A
Combatants
British 8th Army Afrika Korps
Commanders
Claude Auchinleck
Lieutenant General, British Army
Erwin Rommel
Field Marshal, German Army
Strength
195,000 150,000
Casualties
13,250
Killed: 4,500
Wounded: 8,000
Missing or captured: 1,000
62,800
Killed: 3,300
Wounded: 17,500
Captured: 7,700


The First Battle of El Alamein took place near railway depot near the Mediterranean Sea, between 1 and 27 July. The British Commonwealth forces, under General Claude John Eyre Auchinleck, emerged victorious in the battle, having stopped the Afrika Korps under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in Egypt. The battle marked the end of several Axis victories obtained at Gazala, Tobruk, Mersa Matruh, Fuka and elsewhere, and was the first in a series of battles which would result in the liberation of French Algeria and Tunisia from Axis forces, and the invasion of Italy.

The Afrika Korps had been successfully fighting their way ever closer to the Egyptian border. Italian "battleship convoys" personally commanded by Admiral Angelo Iachino, and good solid intelligence from the Italian Military Information Service (Servizio Informazione Militare or SIM) obtained through theft of secret documents from the US Embassy in Rome, had greatly assisted Rommel in winning battles at Benghazi, Tobruk and Mersa Matruh.[1][2] Unfortunately for Rommel, the British discovered this security breach and the deciphered daily reports to Washington coming from Colonel Bonner Fellers (US military attache in Cairo), stopped almost a week after the fall of Tobruk. To make matters worse, his divisions were now running very low on fuel. The scenario was soon set for a major Allied counteroffensive, that aimed to completely break through the Italian divisions and the panzer divisions sent forward to assist them.

El Mreir

On 1 July 1942, the Axis forces commenced their advance. However, the Afrika Korps encountered disorganized but spirited resistance from the Indians and South Africans, forcing the Trento Division and supporting 7th Bersaglieri Regiment to take up defensive positions, and defeating the attacks from the 21st Panzer Division and 90th Light Division.

On 3 July, the 4th New Zealand Brigade, supported by four artillery batteries, attacked the Ariete Armoured Division forward positions, taking 350 prisoners and capturing or destroying 24 field guns and six or eight tanks. Rommel lambasted the performance of the Ariete and in a report to General Albert Kesselring, would falsely claim the Italian armoured division had lost one-hundred tanks in the New Zealand infantry attack.[3]

Determined to encircle and capture the rest of the Ariete, the New Zealander infantry attacked again on 5 July, but were repelled by heavy fire from the Brescia Division dug in near El Mreir.[4]

The Allied attacks continued, and the Indian 5th Infantry Division in the form of the 9th Brigade and 7th Motorised Brigade, pushed north into Rommel's flank and in three days of fighting almost reached Deir el Shein. A Maori battalion from the 2nd New Zealand Division overran part of the Brescia, but were unexpectedly counterattacked by the Pavia Division and forced to retreat. The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War confirms that "enemy forces seeping south threatened to outflank the Division" but makes light of the incident.[5]

During the initial fighting, Major Terence O'Brien-Butler from the 3rd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, displayed enormous control when surrounded by German armour, saving his battery from capture and winning the Military Cross (MC) for his courage.

Tel el Eisa

On the night of 10/11 July, the Australian 9th Division attacked the 60th Sabratha Infantry Division defending Tel el Eisa, very close to the Afrika Korps' Command Post. The German 621st Radio Intercept Company and 835 Italians from the Sabratha are captured. The attacking 2nd/48th Battalion, under Lieutenant-Colonel Heathcote Hammer, had been greatly assisted by the supporting fire from 100 artillery guns.[6] The night, the South Africans also attacked and captured Tel el Makh Khad.

The next morning, a battalion from the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment, under Lieutenant-Colonel Ugo Scirocco, counterattacks and recaptures part of Tel el Eisa along with thirteen Australians after overrunning the 2nd/48th Battalion's forward company.[7] The Bersaglieri suffers heavy casualties, but their attack allows the arrival of several tanks from the 15th Panzer Division and the Italians to send forward a company of tanks, under Captain Vittorio Bulgarelli, from the Trieste Division that halts the Australians.[8]

On 14 July, Colonel Erminio Angelozzi's 1st Battalion (85th Infantry Regiment) from the Sabratha, counterattacks the Australians dug in on Tel el Eisa and succeeded in recapturing the position. The defending battalion withdraws, but the 2nd/23rd Battalion and the British 8th Royal Tank Regiment (8 RTR) counterattack on 16 July, overrunning a good part of the Sabratha and German 382nd Regiment[9] before being forced to withdraw again.[10][11]

On 17 July, the 9th Division resumed the advance in the Tel el Eisa sector, overrunning a good part from the Trento and Trieste Division,[12] but the 3rd Battalion (62nd Trento Regiment) launches an unexpected counterattack with a column of tanks from Major Gabriele Verri's,11th Armoured Battalion, capturing 200 Australians from the 2nd/32nd Battalion.[13][14] Although the commanding officer of the 2nd/32nd Battalion claims the attacking force was "German", the Australian historian Mark Johnston reports that German records prove that Italians were responsible for overrunning and capturing the Australian rifle company.[15] Barton Maughan, Australia's official historian that covered the battles of El Alamein, minimizes the Axis success, writing that "two forward platoons of the 2/32nd's left company were overrun, 22 men were taken prisoner" and implies that the attackers belonged to the German 164th Division.[16]

On 22 July, the Australian 9th Infantry Division finally wins complete control of Tel el Eisa after much fierce fighting, almost lasting a fortnight. In the final action, Private Arthur Stanley Gurney from the 2nd/48th Australian Infantry Battalion wins posthumously the Victoria Cross for eliminating three German machine-gun posts holding up the Australian advance.

Ruweisat

On 14 July and 22 July, General Auchinleck attacks Ruweisat Ridge in the centre. In the fist attack, the New Zealand 2nd Division and Indian 5th Division attack under the cover of darkness and capture 2,000 Italians, but are unable to completely break though the remaining strongpoints from the Pavia and Brescia Divisions due to unexpected resistance from the Italians. With the arrival of daylight, reinforcements from the 15th Panzer Division counterattack and capture 1,600 Allied troops, the majority from the 4th New Zealand Brigade. In the battle, Captain Charles Upham from the New Zealand 20th Battalion, wins the Victoria Cross for the second time (winning his first VC during the Battle of Crete) after attacking a German truck with reinforcements, using a hand-grenade.

Soon after the first battle, the 4th/6th Rajputana Rifles ambush an approaching reinforced German armoured column, accounting for a large number of tanks, armoured cars, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns.

In the second battle, Colonel Gherardo Vaiarini's 65th Regiment along with Colonel Umberto Zanetti's 66th Regiment from the Trieste Division and part of the Brescia Division play a very important role in containing the attack of the New Zealand 2nd Division, long enough to allow the 21st Panzer Division to arrive and deliver a devastating counterattack. In the German attack, the British 23rd Armoured Brigade attempts to regroup, but runs into a minefield. The 5th Panzer Regiment, under Colonel Gerhard Mueller, destroys more than forty British tanks. The rest of the Panzer division joins in the fighting and complete the destruction of the British armoured brigade.

The failure of British armour to reach the infantry in time results in the loss of 800 men. More than 2,300 New Zealanders were killed, wounded, or captured in the two battles. Both Vaiarini de Piacenza and Zanetti were killed in the fighting and posthumously decorated (Gold and Silver Medals respectively) for their bravery.[17] In the same action, Private Günter Halm from the 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment wins the Knights Cross and a commission, for single-handedly putting out of action half a dozen British tanks or more, before his captured Russian 76.2mm anti-tank gun was destroyed in the counter fire.

Miteiriya

General Auchinleck is determined to retain the initiative and orders another two brigade-sized attacks on the night of 26/27 July, with Major Lew McCarter's 2nd/28th Battalion tasked with pushing through the supposedly demoralized Italian defenders on Sanyet el Miteiriya/Ruin Ridge,[18] also known as Ruin Ridge. However, the Australian attack against Miteiriya Ridge meets unexpected tough resistance from machinegunners and antitank gunners from the Trento[19] and the attack is halted soon after dawn, with Australian intelligence officer (Lieutenant Walker) reporting Major McCarter's battalion surrounded by armoured cars,[20] that arrived from the Trieste.[21] Supporting British armour runs into a minefield that is not cleared in time by South African engineers, and the Australians are forced to surrender to the Italians.[22][23] The Australian battalion loses 65 men killed and 490 captured in the attack against the Trento and Trieste Divisions. The war diary of the 2nd/28th Battalion would be declared lost, and many shocked survivors in the unit would later claim they surrendered to panzers from Battle Group Briehl. According to Sergeant Bill Rudd's version of the Australian attack:

The German guns on the right flank were having a field day, and the German voices were close enough to be understandable ... The false dawn revealed us spread over the top of the ridge for about a quarter of a square mile. There was an anti-tank gun set up on our right flank and we could hear the rumble of approaching tanks, and the sounds of machine guns. But as the sky brightened and the tanks closed in, their German crosses became only too visible. There was not a sign of any British tanks, which had apparently failed to start on time and never reached the site of the battle.[24]

The British attack had also been unsuccessful, and about 600 were captured in a German counterattack with tanks and infantry that arrive in trucks.

The 8th Army is now completely exhausted, and by 31 July General Auchinleck orders an end to offensive operations in favor of strengthening the defense lines to be able to meet any future counter-offensive.

Notes

  1. "...this time with crucial Italian - not German - intelligence giving him the daily British order of battle, and with the new self-propelled Semovente 75/18mm which gave the Marcks Group a powerful Italian punch." The American Experience in World War II, Walter L. Hixson, p.255, Taylor & Francis, 2003
  2. Intercepted Communications for Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
  3. Under a Fading Moon (First Battle of El Alamein)
  4. Under a Fading Moon (First Battle of El Alamein)
  5. Under a Fading Moon (First Battle of El Alamein)
  6. "The advance to the next triangulation point on the ridge, Point 23, 2,000 yards further on, was not so easy against the now alerted defence but soon the rifle and machine-gun fire of the Italian defenders was drowned out by the drone of hundreds of shells. The guns of all three Australian field regiments and both South African field regiments as well as the 7th Medium Regiment, amounting to more than 100 25-pounder field guns, 4.5-inch and 5.5-inch medium guns in all, began firing their artillery programme in support of the attack". Pendulum Of War: Three Battles at El Alamein, Niall Barr, p.105, Random House, 2010
  7. According to the 2nd/48th Battalion War Diary: "[a]t approx 2000 hrs enemy tks-number unknown-and inf attacked D Coy front. They overrun posn and enemy inf forced D Coy to withdraw and occupied their psn."
  8. "That afternoon Italian tanks counter-attacked both Australian battalions in an attempt to retake Hill 33 near the coast. Maj. Gabriele Verri, commanding 11th Armd. Bn. of the Trieste Motorised Division, sent a company of M13 and M14 tanks into the assault under Capt. Vittorio Bulgarelli." War in the Desert, Neil D. Orpen, p.367, Purnell, 1971
  9. "Next day, the 16th July, the British attacked again, but this time only locally. After intensive artillery preparation, the Australians attacked in the early hours of the morning with tank support and took several strong-points held by the Sabratha.“ History of the Second World War, Volume 3, p.1074, Purnell and Sons Limited, 1967
  10. "On Tell el Eisa the situation was now too hot for the Australians. The area was swept by fire, and they had no artillery, no Vickers guns and no anti-tank guns, and casualties were mounting. They withdrew again.“ Dance of War: The Story of the Battle of Egypt, p.165, Peter Bates, Pen and Sword, 1992
  11. "The enemy was close at hand, their patrols and armored cars were all over the road. Without hesitation the battery commander, Captain Comi, opened fire at minimum elevation ... handling his massive 149s as if they were machine guns. The space before the leveled guns was clear in no time. The ground was plowed up in front of the guns for a distance close on 20 yards....The guns became red-hot, and many of the handlers were burnt....The area in front of Comi was deserted, except for blazing vehicles and dead Australians." Rommel's Desert War, Samuel W. Mitcham, pp. 118-119, Stackpole Books, 2007
  12. "On 16 July, the Australians had broken through the remnants of Sabratha, and on the 17th through the Trento and Trieste Divisions, but each time had been repulsed by elements of the German 164th Division." Forgotten Allies: The European Theatre, J. Lee Ready, p. 118, McFarland, 1985
  13. "Soon the companies had seized the enemy positions on the ridge, but, in the dark, the men of A Company overshot their objective, Point 22, by 1,500 yards. By the time they realised their mistake they were under such heavy fire that they could not withdraw. By 08.00 hours Italian tanks and infantry began to encircle their positions and eventually forced the entire company to surrender." Pendulum Of War: Three Battles at El Alamein, Niall Barr, p. 148, Random House, 2010
  14. "The attack began on 17 July at 2.30 am. The 2/32nd captured the Trig 22 and linked with the 2/43rd but the Germans resisted fiercely and counter-attacked with tanks. The 2/32nd suffered heavily: nearly half its number were either killed or wounded and nearly 200 became prisoners of war. 2/32nd Australian Infantry Battalion
  15. "There were some courageous efforts by Italian units against Australians at Alamein, but these have gone largely unnoticed in Australian writings ... In wartime and published Australian accounts of Alamein actions, it is not always possible to determine whether "the enemy" referred to was German or Italian ... However, the lack of credit probably derives more from a desire to inflate Australian achievements, and an unwillingness to acknowledge reverses against Italians." Fighting the Enemy, Mark Johnston, pp. 12-13, Cambridge University Press, 2006
  16. "However, the official history mentions the capture of only twenty-two men and implies they were captured by Germans; the battalion history states that 101 men were captured by Germans. German records indicate that Italians of the Trento Division were responsible." Fighting the Enemy, Mark Johnston, p. 13, Cambridge University Press, 2006
  17. "Colonel Gherardo Vaiarini de Piacenza, commanding the 65th Trieste Infantry, was killed; he met his death with such gallantry that he was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal ... The Trieste's other infantry colonel, Umberto Zanetti, commanding the 66th, was also killed - on July 22nd. " Alamein 1933-1962: An Italian Story, Paolo Caccia Dominioni de Sillavengo, p. 83, Allen & Unwin, 1966
  18. "The aim was to breach a section of line held by Italian troops, the more brittle element in Rommel's army." Remembering 1942: Ruin Ridge
  19. "We could see the Australians and British advancing rather spread out, about 750 yards in front of us, all in groups corresponding with their units. We ceased fire with the machine-guns — there was still plenty of time for them — but continued with our 47/32s ... When they got within 300 yards, we opened up with everything. The noise was terrific; you could only tell a gun was firing by the smoke and powder coming out of its muzzle. It was almost eleven o’clock. My tommy-gun broke down after about 3,000 rounds — ejector broken! The machine-gun also played up a bit after 5,000 rounds. But by that time the attack was beginning to peter out. The British artillery had packed it in. By midday it was all over. After the withdrawal, followed by our counterattack, the ambulances returned to start ferrying back the dead and wounded, but we got suspicious after an hour or so because they seemed to be hanging about too much. We fired a few shots over their heads to let them know it was time to break it up. They took the hint and went — and didn’t come back." Alamein 1933-1962: An Italian Story, Paolo Caccia Dominioni de Sillavengo, p. 87, Allen & Unwin, 1966
  20. "The Bn was completely surrounded by ARMORED CARS which worked forward under cover of fire from enemy tanks further back, while 20mm, MMG and mortar fire kept the heads of our own troops well down. In this manner the enemy was able to cut off and dispose of sections and platoons one by one, until at 1030 hrs Bn HQ area was occupied by several ARMORED CARS and surviving personnel taken prisoner. An effort had been made to hinder the enemy armored vehicles by bringing Arty fire to bear on them before they dispersed. Unfortunately the only communication with Bde was by one wireless set WT repaired by Sigs, after about eight hours work. Messages reporting the situation were sent immediately once this set was capable of functioning, i.e., about 0930 hrs onwards. Last message was “All up, overrun!”." July 1942 Diary by Lieutenant S. A. Walker
  21. "The names of certain units were on everyone’s lips up and down the line following particularly brilliant actions, among them the reconnaissance Group of the Trieste. It had been set up some time previously: it was hardly a homogeneous unit on the German pattern, but did reflect admirably the Italian genius of improvisation. They had no more than nine vehicles–Morrises, Fords, Dingos and Jeeps, all captured from the enemy–armed with small caliber guns and machine-guns of all descriptions, British, Italian and German, together with two British 88 guns and their carriages, and two small supply lorries." Alamein 1933-1962: An Italian Story, Paolo Caccia Dominioni de Sillavengo, p. 79, Allen & Unwin, 1966
  22. "Assuming that the Italians were demoralized and easy pickings was a mistake, which the 9th Australian Division, the heroes of the defense of Tobruk in 1941, learned to its regret. A night attack against the Trento and Trieste Divisions, after some initial success, was bloodily repulsed, one entire battalion of Australian infantry being overrun." Field Marshal: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel, Daniel Allen Butler, p. 352, Casemate, 2015
  23. "Il contrattacco sviluppato da un battaglione di secondo scaglione della divisione «Trieste» e da un battaglione della «Trento», era riuscito ad impedire il dilagare della penetrazione, con la cattura di 500 prigionieri e stroncando ogni ulteriore possibilità di avanzata nemica verso ovest." Seconda Controffensiva Italo-Tedesca in Africa Settentrionale da El Agheila a El Alamein, p. 181,Tipografia regionale, 1951
  24. ANZAC POW