Second Battle of El Alamein
|Second Battle of El Alamein|
|Date||October 23-November 11, 1942|
|British 8th Army||Afrika Korps|
Lieutenant General, British Army
Field Marshal, German Army
Captured or missing: 2,260
The Second Battle of El Alamein took place from 23 October to 11 November 1942, outside the El Alamein train station near the sea and the large Quattara Depression to the south. General Bernard Montgomery commanded the British 8th Army and General Erwin Rommel commanded the Panzerarmee Afrika' during this battle.
General Rommel's Italo-German forces had been pushing ever closer to the Suez Canal and the oil-rich fields of Egypt, thanks in large part to the Italian "battleship convoys" (under Admiral Angelo Iachino) that delivered much needed fuel and tanks , and intercepted Allied signals from the Italian Military Information Service (Servizio Informazione Militare or SIM), that helped Rommel obtain the Axis victories at Gazala, Tobruk, Mersa Matruh and Fuka.
Unfortunately for the Axis, this important source of intelligence intercepted from the reports that the US military attache in Cairo, Colonel Bonner Fellers sent to Washington, stopped at the start of the First Battle of El Alamein. Rommel then tried to overrun the opposing British Commonwealth forces during the Battle of Alam el Halfa, but this attack also failed. The scenario was now set for what would prove be the final confrontation in Egypt, that would result in the Axis retreat across Egypt and deep into Tunisia.
Rommel's advance stalled at the Battle of Alem el Halfa. Rommel knew that a new major allied offensive against the Afrika Korps was unavoidable and his division commanders prepared for it. Now longer benefiting from intercepted British signals and lacking fuel, armour and fighter cover, Rommel had no choice but to order his divisions to dig in and fortify their positions with extensive minefields and medium and heavy anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns.
General Claude Auchinleck had been in command of the British 8th Army and its supporting units in North Africa, but in early August he was relieved and replaced with Lieutenant-General William Gott, who was killed before taking command when the transport plane he was travelling in was shot down by Luftwaffe fighters. Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery became the 8th Army commander and he quickly set up a defensive line outside the port town of El Alamein in Egypt. He knew that Rommel's men were tired, sick, and running desperately low on fuel - all he had to do was hold his defensive line and build up his tank force before counterattacking and completely overrunning Rommel's armour.
Faced with an overextended supply line and lack of armour, yet well aware of massive Allied reinforcements in men and material, Rommel decided to strike first while Montgomery's build-up was still not complete. The two armoured divisions of the Afrika Korps and a force made of the reconnaissance units of Panzer Armee Afrika and the Bologna Division spearheaded the attack, but on 30 August 1942 the Allies halted them in the fighting known as the Battle of Alam el Halfa.
Rommel left North Africa in September for health reasons and was replaced by General Georg von Stumme, recently arrived from the Eastern Front. That month, the Afrika Korps only received 16,200 tons of supplies (54 percent of its requirements) and rations had to be reduced.
Since September, General Montgomery had amassed a very strong army, consisting of nearly 200,000 men, more than 1,000 tanks, around 1,000 artillery pieces and supported by more than 500 warplanes.
Under a full moon the night of October 23, 1942, Montgomery began a mass bombardment of the Axis defences at 9.40 pm, destroying the Italian 62nd Regiment and communications in the Afrika Korps. All the 882 artillery guns fired, striking struck fear into the hearts of many of the Axis soldiers. As one Australian soldier observed, the whole horizon to the east spewed heavenwards in a fount of orange and blood-red flame, stabbing at the sky. The four infantry divisions of the 30th Corps advanced across the "Devil's Garden", with sapperss clearing a path for the tanks of the 10th Corps. As the mines were cleared, 500 Allied tanks began to press forward in support of the infantry.
The initial attack on Rommel's main lines was assisted by diversionary attacks further south from the 7th Armoured Division and Free French Brigade. The diversionary attack was unable to exploit any weaknesses, meeting determined resistance from the German Ramcke and Italian Folgore paratroop brigades. The German defences reached breaking point before dawn and General von Stumme died of a heart attack after his vehicle came under anti-tank and machinegun fire while conducting a reconnaissance close to the British lines. On the morning of 24 October, General Ritter von Thoma assumed command, and immediately ordered panzer units to counterattack the British 1st Highland Division.
Thee 44th and 50th divisions achieved limited gains attacking the northern defences and at heavy cost, against determined defenders from the Pavia and Brescia divisions. The Indian 4th Infantry Division also met determined opposition from the Italian Bologna Division in the centre.
Throughout 24 October, the British artillery continued bombarding the Afrika Korps' forward defences and the Desert Air Force carried out 1,000 missions in support of the Allied infantry. By 4:00 p.m. the Allied attacks had been largely contained, at at dusk the 15th Panzer Division and General Gervasio Bittosi's Littorio Division counterattacked the British 1st Armoured Division near Kidney Ridge. Over 100 tanks were involved in this tank battle that ended in a stalemate, with half reportedly destroyed.
Montgomery's forces had penetrated the Axis minefields, making a six-mile (10 km) wide and five mile (8 km) deep advance. They had captured Miteiriya Ridge in the southeast, but Rommel's forces were firmly entrenched in most of their original battle positions and the initial battle had ended in a standstill. Hence, Montgomery ordered an end to the diversionary attack in the south (releasing 7th Armoured Division to move north to reinforce X Corps) and the abandonment of Miteiriya Ridge. He would now be concentrated on taking Kidney Ridge and Tel el Eisa until a breakthrough occurred. But the German and Italian divisions would continue to fight coherently for another week.
On 25 October, the 15th Panzer and Littorio divisions attacked, hoping to exploit any weaknesses in the Allied defences but were unsuccessful. When the sun set the Allied infantry counterattacked. Around midnight, the 51st Division launched three failed attacks, losing over 500 Allied troops in the process.
While the 51st Highland Division was fighting around Kidney Ridge, the Australians were attacking Tel el Eisa, in an attempt to surround the Axis stronghold containing the German 164th Light Division supported by large numbers of Italian infantry. The Australian 26 Brigade attacked at midnight, supported by the Desert Air Force that dropped 115 tons of bombs, and the Allies took the position and 240 prisoners. Fighting continued in this area for the next week as the Axis tried to recover Tel el Eisa that was so vital to their defence.
On 25 October, Rommel returned to North Africa and immediately assumed command. He found that the Italian Trento Division had lost half its infantry, 164th Light Division had lost two battalions, most other groups were under strength, all men were on half rations, a large number were sick, and the entire Axis army had only enough fuel for three days.
After two days, despite his 8th Army’s massive numerical superiority, General Montgomery had only been able to drive a small wedge into Rommel’s defences. A meeting was held at 3:30 one morning, in which Montgomery was urged by his fellow officers to change his plan, but he insisted on sticking with it. One of those present at the meeting recalled how there was a certain "atmosphere" while Montgomery berated his commanders for their lack of resolve, while never acknowledging that there might have been a flaw in his tactics, which had resulted in the of more than 300 tanks in just two days.
Another Axis counterattack was organized and began moving at 3 p.m. against Tel el Eisa. Rommel was convinced by this time that the main assault would be in the north and was determined to retake Point 29, moving all his tanks there from around the Kidney feature. Air and ground support concentrated into the area as Rommel moved the 21st Panzer and Ariete Divisions up from the south along the Rahman Track. This turned out to be a costly move for the Axis. The British held the position and Rommel's troops lacked fuel to withdraw, and were therefore caught out in the open and subjected to heavy air attacks.
On the night of 25–26 October, Private Percy Gratwick from the Australian 2nd/48th (26th Brigade) was killed taking out a German machine-gun pit on Miteiriya Ridge. He had been wounded in the attack, being eventually killed by a second machine-gun team. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
To Montgomery's dismay, the British failed to take advantage and secure Kidney Ridge after the withdrawal of the panzers . Each time the British infantry tried to move forward, they were stopped by anti-tank guns. That day, however, RAF Beaufort torpedo bombers from Nos. 42 and. 47 Squadrons sank the tanker Proserpina outside Tobruk, denying Rommel the chance of refuelling his armoured and supporting fighter units.
By this time, the main battle was concentrated near Kidney Ridge. A battlegroup comprising the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Rifle Brigade, G and H Troops from the 1st Armoured Division, with 239 Anti-Tank Battery, Royal Artillery in support at a position codenamed Snipe.
Mortar and shell fire was constant all day long. Around 4 p.m. British tanks accidentally opened fire against their own positions causing casualties. At 5 p.m. Rommel launched his main attack and German tanks moved forward. The British 239th Battery was able to destroy or damage over 50 tanks of the 21st Panzer Division. During the final part of the action, only one British officer and a sergeant were left to halt the panzers, so Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Buller Turner, the commanding officer of a battalion of the 2nd Rifle Brigade joined them as a loader, and between them they were able to hit and destroy five panzers. The Germans gave up attacking and the British battlegroup was withdrawn that evening. Lieutenant-Colonel Turner was awarded the Victoria Cross. He would later explain that good training in the battalon, had prevented the Germans from overrunning the British forces defending Snipe that day:
"It's therefore extremely important that in peace time you should get the drill, as it were, of conducting a battle, or exercises so that when it actually comes to fighting [and] you are enmeshed in the fog of war, your actions are so automatic that you can adapt yourself to the unexpected and carry on without losing your head."
On the night of 27–28 October, the Australians advanced beyond Tel el Eisa, to an Axis strongpoint south of the railway station nicknamed "Thompson's Post", hoping to force a breakthrough along the coastal road. The German 125th Regiment and part of the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment, were attacked by Australian soldiers riding on Valentine tanks of the 46th Royal Tank Regiment. Mines and anti-tank guns soon halted the attackers, with the Australians reporting 200 casualties in the night fighting. The Italian anti-tank gunners stood firm and all were reported killed in the fighting or died as a result of their wounds, except for 20 wounded men who were captured the following morning. For this and other actions, Rommel would dedicate a plaque in memory of the Bersaglieri that fought at Alamein:
"The German soldier has impressed the world. However the Italian Bersaglieri soldier has impressed the German soldier."
By October 28, General Montgomery still had 800 operational tanks, while Rommel was reduced to 148 German and 187 Italian tanks. The next day, Montgomery was forced to withdraw his spearhead troops in order to regroup for another attack. Unsurprisingly, Churchill was critical and vented his frustration on his Chief of General Staff, General Alan Brooke. Crooke recalled . "When I went to Winston. I was met by a flow of abuse of Monty. What was my Monty doing now, allowing the battle to peter out?" Although Brooke managed to convince Churchill that Montgomery knew what he was doing, privately, he was not sure. "Personally, I was far from being at peace", Brooke later wrote.
On the night of 30–31 October, the Australians launched their third attack to reach the paved road and were successful. In the fierce night action, Sergeant William Henry Kibby of the Australian 2nd/48th Battalion is killed assaulting a machine-gun post with hand-grenades, winning a posthumous Victoria Cross.
On 31 October, Rommel launched four counterattacks attacks against "Thompson's Post". The close-quarter fighting was fierce but no ground was gained by the German forces. On Sunday 1 November, Rommel tried again to dislodge the Australians, but the fierce fighting resulted in nothing but more lost men and equipment. By now it had become obvious to Rommel that the battle was lost. He began to plan the Afrika Korps retreat to Fuka, some 50 miles (80 kilometres) west. Ironically, large amounts of fuel arrived at Benghazi after the Germans had started retreating.
On the night of 1–2 November, General Montgomery launched a new attack along the Rahman Track, aimed at capturing Tel el Aqqaqir, where Rommel had dug in several German 88mm and Italian 90 mm anti-aircraft guns from the Littorio Armoured Division. The attack started with a seven-hour aerial bombardment focused on taking out the heavy guns on Tel el Aqqaqir and fuel supplies and communication cables. This air attack was followed by an intense four-and-a-half hour bombardment from 360 guns, firing 15,000 shells. The initial infantry attacks of Supercharge was to be carried out by the 151st Durham and 152nd Seaforth and Camerons Brigades, backed up by the British 9th Armoured Brigade, all under the command of General Bernard Freyberg. Also taking part in the attacks, would be the 133rd Royal Sussex Brigade and 23rd Armoured Brigade, without the 40th and 46th Royal Tank Regiments. General Bernard Freyberg, had tried to prevent his division from taking part, as the New Zealanders were under strength and had already lost a brigade. The New Zealand contribution to Supercharge would be the 5th Brigade with the 28th (Maori) Battalion attached to the 151st Brigade.
The Allied infantry gained most of their objectives, overruning two German infantry battalions, but one Bersaglieri battalion from Colonel Gaetano Amoroso's 12th Bersaglieri Regiment held firm in the fierce bombardment. Brigadier Currie's 9th Armoured Brigade started its advance around 8 pm from El Alamein railway station with around 130 tanks. The brigade arrived at its start-line with only 94 tanks, due to minefields.
The brigade was to have started its attack against Tel el Aqqaqir at 5.45 am. However, the attack was delayed for 30 minutes while the brigade regrouped on Currie's orders. In the meantime, the Axis commanders were giving out urgent orders to reinforce Aqqaqir ridge position with German and captured Russian heavy anti-tank guns. At 6.15 am, half an hour before dawn, the three armoured regiments of the brigade renewed their advance towards Rommel's anti-tank screen.
Despite the heavy night bombardment, the Italians manning 47mm anti-tank guns, opened fire at point-blank range, destroying several columns of British tanks. They were supported by the Italian heavy anti-aircraft guns and field guns from the Littorio Division that had survived the bombardments. German and Italian tanks also intervened, penetrating between the Warwickshire Yeomanry and Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, forcing General Freyberg to abandon the attack. Brigadier Currie lost 75 of his 94 tanks, and 230 of his 400 men attacking Aqqaqir Ridge. The New Zealand infantry attacks in the north also failed, with German infantry counterattacks halting the advance of the 5th Brigade.
Nevertheless, General Bitossi admitted 35 anti-tank guns and several tanks lost defending Aqqaqir Ridge, including the commanding officer of the present Littorio armoured battalion wounded, with Captain Vittorio Bulgarelli killed leading tanks from the Triestein the Italo-German armoured counterattack.
That evening, with the Afrika Korps reduced to 35 serviceable tanks, Rommel concluded "that our final destruction was upon us."
Eventually, after breaking the German-Italian armoured counter-attack, Montgomery at last broke through Rommel's anti-tank gun defence line on November 4. Field Marshal Rommel was forced to retreat, although Adolf Hitler ordered him to stand firm and fight to the last drop of blood. Unfortunately, a cautious Montgomery did not seize this opportunity to capture the whole of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and after fighting a rearguard action, Rommel was able to escape with much of his German forces. Due to insufficient fuel and transportation, the great bulk of the Italian divisions were abandoned, with some German units commandeering Italian trucks and fuel at gunpoint.
That day, the final Allied attacks were made. The British 1st, 7th and 10th Armoured Divisions (under Major-General Gatehouse) passed through the Axis lines, and advanced towards Fuka, overrunning the Pavia Division in the process. The Allied advance also saw the destruction of the Ariete and Littorio Armoured Divisions, and the Trieste and Bologna Divisions. The Ariete (under General Francesco Arena) fought well at El Alamein, effectively derailing Montgomery's plans to encircle and completely destroy the retreating Afrika Korps. The German Army High Command recognized the Italian sacrifices made around Aqqaqir Ridge and claimed that the "British were made to pay for their penetration with enormous losses in men and material. The Italians fought to the last man."
It was reported that Colonel Arrigo Dall'Olio, the acting commanding of the survivors of the Bologna Division, surrendered to his British counterpart saying, "We have ceased firing not because we haven't the desire but because we have spent every round." In a symbolic act of final defiance no one in the Bologna raised their hands.
The Fallschirmjäger brigade under General Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke was cut off in the southern desert; nevertheless the German paratroopers force marched 80 miles to catch up with Rommel, in the process ambushing and capturing a British motorized column and freeing some 100 Axis prisoners. For this achievement, Ramcke was awarded the Oaks Leaves to his Knight's Cross and promoted to Generalleutnant.
War correspondent Harry Zinder from TIME magazine visited the battlefield, noting that the Italians fought better than had been expected:
|“||It was a terrific letdown by their German allies. They had fought a good fight. In the south, the famed Folgore parachute division fought to the last round of ammunition. Two armoured divisions and a motorised division, which had been interspersed among the German formations, thought they would be allowed to retire gracefully with Rommel's 21st, 15th and 90th Light. But even that was denied them. When it became obvious to Rommel that there would be little chance to hold anything between El Daba and the frontier, his Panzers dissolved, disintegrated and turned tail, leaving the Italians to fight a rear-guard action."||”|
The Allied victory in North Africa was all but complete. The British losses were 2,350 killed, 8,950 wounded and 2,350 captured or missing, with 332–500 tanks, 111 guns and ninety-seven aircraft also lost. Rommel lost 7,802 Germans and 22,071 Italians captured and lost 500 tanks, 254 guns and eighty-four aircraft. Allied casualties were by comparison a remarkably small proportion of their total force. The effective strength of Panzer Armee Afrika after the battle amounted to some 5,000 troops, 20 tanks, 20 anti-tank guns and 50 field guns. But General Montgomery immediate exploitation of his advantage was poor because of exhaustion among his troops. They were taken by surprise by Rommel's withdrawal, and this combined with confusion caused by reorganization of depleted armoured units and fear of more hidden rearguard anti-tank defences, meant that the British armoured divisions were slow in pursuit, failing to cut off Rommel first at Fuka and then Mersa Matruh.
- "He attacked the El Alamein lines on 23 October, with 230,000 men to 80,000 (27,000 Germans), 1,440 tanks to 540 (260 German) and 1,500 aircraft to 350." Hitler, Norman Stone, A&C Black, 2013
- "The next three convoys, however, provided the impetus for Rommel's new offensive planning. They arrived between 3 and 6 January at Tripoli. These were followed by five more convoys from 22 to 25 January. A further convoy - K7 - also reached Tripoli safely. For the time being, Rommel had fewer logistical nightmares to worry about than previously." Das Afrika Korps, Franz Kurowski, p. 138, Stackpole Books, 2010
- "The reason that the Germans were able to keep one step ahead of the British is because they were receiving information about British intentions from the American military attache in Cairo, Colonel Bonner Frank Fellers, whose coded messages were intercepted and deciphered by the Italians. Colonel Fellers was a conscientious office and very capable in his position, but unknown to him or anyone else was that a member of the Italian Military Intelligence Service (Servizio Informazione Militare or SIM) working at the US Embassy in Rome had stolen the so-called 'Black Code' in September 1941, copied it and returned the original to the embassy. Fellers was privy to British military plans and was passing on details to the Military Intelligence Division in Washington; the Italians were intercepting these and decoding and sending the information to Rommel." World War II Trucks and Tanks, John Norris, The History Press, 2012
- Was Monty's finest hour just a pointless bloodbath?
- "Divisione 'Littorio', which had been mauled by the hastily retreating 1st Armoured Division ... was ... bolstered by two units of 88mm guns before tackling 1st Armoured again." El Alamein, Bryn Hammond, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012
- "The new (Littorio) division had a smaller compliment of 6,500 officers and men, but it had additional firepower: twelve more 105mm artillery pieces, eight brand new 90mm AA guns - the Italian equivalent of the German 88mm and just as deadly in an anti-tank role, twenty-six more 20mm AA guns, and twenty-four new Semoventi" Mussolini's Elite Armoured Divisions, Ian Walker, Crowood, 2012
- "Some of the credit given to the “eighty-eights” as a deadly long-range tank-killer in North Africa actually goes to the superficially similar Italian cannone da 90/53. This 90mm antiaircraft gun was one of the better Italian weapons ... over 500 produced between 1941 and 1943 ..." The Big Book of Gun Trivia, Gordon Rottman, Bloomsbury, 2013
- El-Alamein: la battaglia che consacrò il valore del soldato italiano
- "Already at midnight on 2 November, the air bombardment suggested a new offensive was about to start and the headquarters of Panzer Army Africa issued its own order: all the positions were to be held no matter what, not an inch of terrain was to be surrendered without a hard fight ... one battalion of 90th Light Division in the north, along with another one of 15th Panzer Division in the south, were soon overrun and at 4.45am it was reported that only one Italian Bersaglieri Infantry Battalion was still holding the line ... A little while later, the tanks of 9th Armoured Brigade arrived, immediately attacking the enemy positions along the Rahman track ... with its three battalions deployed as follows from north to south: 3rd Hussars, Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry and Warwickshire Yeomanry, supported by the anti-tank guns of 14th Sherwood Foresters." El Alamein, Pier Paolo Battistelli, The History Press, 2011
- "Major Eveleigh's own tank was hit and set ablaze at point blank range by a troop of Italian 47mm guns. He bailed out with his turret crew, until the armour plate became too hot to touch, desperately struggled to free the jammed hatches of his driver and co-driver, to no avail. Aware that the Italian gunners were shooting at his gunner and operator with small arms, he emptied his revolver at them. At this point Lieutenant Charles Dorman, one of his troop leaders, seeing what was happening, attacked the Italians from a flank and wiped them out. The rest of the regiment had now come up and become heavily engaged in a series of personal close-quarter duels with the numerous gun positions ... During this phase of the action the regiment accounted for fifteen anti-tank guns, four field guns and five tanks, but by 0710 it had itself been reduced to seven tanks while only four of its officers remained alive and unwounded." Iron Fist, Bryan Perrett, Hachette, 2012
- "Gli artiglieri della Littorio dopo nove giorni di strenua lotta difesero ancora stoicamente i pezzi e con il loro sacrificio scrissero una delle più belle pagine di gloria dell'arma." Ferrea Mole Ferreo Cuore, Dino Campini, Soldiershop, 2015
- "On the morning of 4 November, however, 'a strong armoured force' of the British 7th Armoured Division penetrated the XXIst Corps' position and the Trento and Bologna Divisons gave ground. Germany and the Second World War: Volume 6: The Global War, Horst Boog, Werner Rahn, Reinhard Stumpf, Bernd Wegner, OUP Oxford, 13 Sep. 2001
- "Soon after midday, ten miles south-west of the Aqqaqir ridge, 22 Armoured Brigade came up against the tanks and anti-tank screen of the Italian rearguard, Ariete Division ... For most of the rest of the day, they slugged it out until finally, under the constant pounding, Ariete broke and ran, abandoning equipment everywhere ... The men they had fought were the Bersaglieri ... The cock-feather plumes in their helmets did not look so jaunty now as they lay twisted on the ground. The riflemen dug graves. They found piles of propaganda postcards, men in feathered hats marching towards Cairo. There was a songbook too ... trying to make out the meaning of the lyrics. L Addio del Bersaglieri." End of the Beginning, Phil Craig, Tim Clayton, Hachette, 2012
- Rolling Thunder: A Century of Tank Warfare, Philip Kaplan, p. 139, Pen and Sword, 2013
- Battlefronts: A PINT OF WATER PER MAN, Time Magazine, 16 November 1942
- "Eighth Army's losses were in no way inferior to these; 2,350 men killed in action, plus some other 2,260 missing, and another 8,950 wounded." El Alamein 1942, Pier Paolo Battistelli, The History Press, 2011
- "Only by 11 November did more complete figures emerge after the remnants of the Axis forces had been rounded up; by then there were some 30,000 prisoners which included 7,802 Germans and 22,071 Italians." El Alamein 1942, Pier Paolo Battistelli, The History Press, 2011