Second Battle of Alamein (28-29 October 1942)

28 October 1942

Eisenhower has plenty of headaches to deal with today. The French Army seems supportive to the invasion of North Africa. The Navy remains a question mark. No one knows what to do about Darlan, Giraud, and De Gaulle. The Americans also fear Spanish intervention on Hitler’s side.

Meanwhile, German U-boats and aircraft pick up signs of the incoming Torch invasion. A U-boat spots the battleship HMS Rodney heading south from Scapa Flow. Another carrier force is seen off Gibraltar.

At Algeciras, Viennese Lt. Karl Redl, a World War I Austro-Hungarian Navy veteran, occupies the Villa San Luis, a private house with a superb view across to Gibraltar Harbor. Redl has held the job of spying on Gibraltar since October 1. He speaks several languages, but not Spanish. A three-week dalliance with the niece of boxer Primo Carnera has helped him.

Now, with two noncoms and some Zeiss telescopes, Redl watches the ancient carrier HMS Furious, a converted World War I battlecruiser, lumber into the Mediterranean with a destroyer escort. Redl’s radiomen encipher a message in the Abwehr hand cipher, and radiotelegraph it to a station in Dax, on the French side of the Pyrenees, who forward the message to Berlin.

General consternation results at the Fuhrer’s headquarters in Vinnitsa, but nobody is sure what the British are up to. Hitler’s workload - Alamein, Stalingrad, the Final Solution - is extremely heavy. The top brass surmise that the Allies are either seeking to relieve Malta, or invade Sardinia, or make a major invasion behind Rommel’s lines in Libya. No consideration of French North Africa.

El Alamein , Egypt : Early in the morning, Montgomery summons his two northern corps commanders to his Tac HQ to discuss the situation. Rommel is fighting hard. Montgomery says, "It is clear that we now have the whole of the Panzer Army opposite the Northern funnel and that we shall never get the armored divisions out that way. I have therefore decided to make this a defensive front, to be taken over by 30th Corps. 1st Armoured Division and 24th Armoured Brigade to be withdrawn into reserve." The Australians will continue their attack northward, to annihilate any enemy units that can be drawn in, heavily supported by RAF and South African bomber squadrons.

Then, at the right time, Monty will cut loose 30th Corps infantry northwest to Sidi Abd el Rahman while armored car regiments drive southwest to circle around and cut off Rommel’s communication and supply routes. Only then will the armor be cut loose.

To win this battle, Montgomery needs tough fighters to back up the 9th Australian Division, which is heavily engaged.

At noon, Montgomery lunches with one of his toughest fighters, Maj. Gen. Bernard Freyberg, whose 2nd New Zealand Division’s 6th Brigade is taking a breather after its exertions.

Monty decides to use 2nd New Zealand Division as the additional punch. Because of its immense casualties, Monty reinforces Freyberg with the 151st Brigade (all battalions of the Durham Light Infantry) from 50th Northumbrian Division, then the 152nd Brigade from the 51st Highland Division, then the 131st Infantry Brigade of the 44th Home Counties Division (all battalions of the Queen’s Regiment), then the Greek Brigade. The offensive will be covered by Brig. John Currie’s 9th Armoured Brigade. Freyberg accepts these orders, and heads back to 30 Corps HQ to work out the attack.

Meanwhile the Alamein battle rages on. RAF and South African bombers continue to stall German counterattacks before they can properly start. New Zealand artillerymen move into the Australian sector. British and German tanks shoot it out amid sand and smoke.

On the opposite side of the fence, Rommel’s weary men endure a heavy artillery barrage at Hill 28. Clearly the 9th Australians are going to attack at some point. Rommel deduces that the British will maintain their pressure in the north, and concentrates nearly all his mobile forces (except the Italian Ariete Armored Division) there. He expects another night attack. Rommel is greatly impressed by the British use of infantry by night, particularly Australian infantry.

Despite the noise, confusion, and immediacy of battle, Nazi paperwork grinds on, even at Alamein. During the day, Rommel receives the “Kommando Befehl” put out by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. This orders the execution of any captured enemy raiding forces. Commandos are not to be accorded the usual POW status under international law. They are to be summarily executed. Rommel is stunned. He burns the order in front of his 1A.

After that, Rommel sends off a hypocritical but tough Order of the Day to his troops - all orders will be obeyed without question. Any soldier who does not will be court-martialed regardless of rank.

In Italy, the Regia Marina musters every auxiliary cruiser, destroyer, and transport it can find, to push ammunition and fuel across the Mediterranean. The convoys sail across, coming under attack from Malta-based submarines and Beaufighter torpedo planes, reaching Benghazi after suffering considerable damage. The convoys unload in Benghazi’s poor harbor 600 miles behind Rommel’s front and then all supplies being transported on a open coastal road Via Balbia under heavy RAF air raids all the way to front at Alamein , wasting supplies. One tanker, the Louisiano, never makes it - sunk by a torpedo launched from a RF Beaufort torpedo-bomber with 2,000 tons of petrol lost.

That evening, Rommel moves the 90th German Light Division into position on the British northern flank. All German units except the Ramcke Parachute Brigade are now in the north.

At 9 p.m., British and Australian guns open up on the German 164th Division’s 125th Regiment. “The weight of this attack was something quite exceptional,” Rommel writes. “However, by concentrating every gun in the area, we managed to break up the British attacks.”

Not quite. (Rommel’s Papers are very serf serving here , painting a heroic but doomed romantic image by Panzer Army that was put into this situation due to his own strategic mistakes) 2nd/15th Australian Battalion drives north for some 3,000 yards through minefields and takes 130 German prisoners, losing their own colonel in exchange. The 2nd/13th Australians drives north, battling mines and mortar bombardment. A group of 10 men seize a German mortar post, and turn the captured machine guns on the enemy. The 2nd/23rd Battalion, riding Valentines of 46th Royal Tank Regiment, rumble forward. The tanks hit mines and lose their treads, trapping Australian infantry and British tankers amid the battle, causing heavy casualties.

The Australians, however, continue to drive north to the coastal railway, capturing six German field guns and 180 more German prisoners from 90th Light Division, before being halted by machine gun and small arms fire.

At his HQ, Rommel watches the action. “We could see the flash of bursting shells in the darkness and hear the rolling thunder of battle. Again and again British bomber formations flew up and tipped their death-dealing loads on my troops, or bathed the country in the brilliant light of parachute flares. No one can ever measure the burden of anxiety that weighed upon us at this time. That night I scarcely slept at all, walking up and down, wondering how the battle would go and what decisions I should take. It seemed to me doubtful whether we could continue for any length of time to resist attacks of the violence which we were now experiencing and which I knew the British could intensify still further. I was quite convinced that I should not await the decisive breakthrough but should anticipate withdrawing westwards. In case of retreat we must do as best to extricate as many tanks and guns as possible and move them with us. In no circumstances must we await the complete destruction of the Alamein front.”

Rommel studies his reports, and knows that he lacks the transport and fuel to withdraw his Italian troops on wheels, and is depressed that many will be left behind to become POWs. (he should have thought that before invading Egypt recklessly then digging there)

Amid the chaos, a convoy of Axis vehicles rumbles into the Australian area, bringing supplies to German units, that have already been overrun. The Australians stop the trucks and seize the goods, which turn out to be food and ammunition. The Australians are annoyed that none of the panniers contain beer.

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29 October 1942

Eisenhower says his farewell to King George VI in London. The King wants a full briefing on Operation Torch, and Ike gives it. The King wishes Eisenhower every success.

Ike meets with the British Chiefs of Staff. They discuss the perennial shortage of shipping - many ships have been diverted to Torch - and Ike’s need for an additional British tank brigade and five infantry brigades.

As the day begins at El Alamein, Australian troops continue their attacks north while the British regroup. German troops counterattack against the Australian salient, facing the 2nd/17th and 2nd/15th Battalions. Australian and British anti-tank guns, mortars, artillery, and rifle fire, tear apart the German attacks. The Australians report, “It could be seen that dreadful casualties had been inflicted on the attackers.” Italian and German bodies lie strewn in the sand between burning vehicles.

At 11 a.m., Montgomery reviews the situation. The German forces are mostly in the north, Italians in the south, leaving a seam just north of the original British northern corridor. With advice of General Alexander’s Chief of Staff General Richard McCreery and his own Chief of Staff Brig. De Guingand , Monty decides to attack that seam on the evening of the 30th. The objective will be the Martuba airfields, so as to assist in giving air cover to a convoy headed for Malta. The island is short of food, and nearly out of the aviation fuel that came in on the Pedestal Convoy in July.

The attack will be led by the reinforced 2nd NZ Division under 30 Corps, along the Coast Road. 2nd NZ will be backed by two British infantry brigades and 9th British Armoured Brigade. The Australians will continue to drive north. 10th Corps and the tanks will follow through the hole created. The attack will be a hard blow to the right, followed by a knockout blow to the left. The operation is entitled “Supercharge.”

As Monty gets to work with his signal pad, Alexander arrives at the morning conference, bringing word that London is unhappy with the progress of the battle.

Alexander is right. Churchill has just learned that Monty is withdrawing whole divisions from the battle. Churchill is furious, and summons the Chief of Staff, Field Marshal Alan Brooke. Why is Montgomery letting the battle peter out? Why is he taking troops out of the battle? “Haven’t we got a single general who can win even one battle?”

Brooke defends his protege, Montgomery, to Churchill, as does South Africa’s Field Marshal Smuts. But Brooke, worried with defeats, is nervous, too, writing, “I had told them what I thought Monty must be doing. But there was just such a possibility that I was wrong and Monty was beat.”

Thus Alexander and Minister of State Richard Casey arrive at Monty’s Tac HQ, carrying telegrams from London.

Montgomery explains the situation to everyone, radiating confidence. Casey is unconvinced. He takes de Guingand aside and mumbles about telegraphing Churchill to say bad news may be on the way.

De Guingand barks, “For God’s sake, don’t! If you do, I’ll see you’re drummed out of political life!” Casey is stunned. He does not send a cable.

Less impressed is the very sharp Lt. Gen. Richard McCreery, Alexander’s chief of staff. He says that the New Zealand assault should not be delivered along the coast, but just north of Kidney Ridge. McCreery suggests that to de Guingand, who studies the map, and says, “I will go and talk to Monty about it again - don’t you for goodness sake! If one can persuade him it’s his own idea.”

De Guingand goes to Montgomery, and the two examine the maps. Montgomery realise that what McCreery says makes sense. Monty orders 2 NZ to attack along an extension of the original Australian sector’s northern boundary, not along the coast road.

He sends this message to Freyberg, and the New Zealander grunts, 2nd NZ Division starts to assemble in the Tell el Makh Khad area.

At noon, Rommel gets word that German ammunition ship Louisiano has been sunk by RAF bombers, adding to his difficulties.

As Rommel muses on the situation, General Count Emilio Barbasetti arrives from Rome. Rommel lets Barbasetti have it. What happened to the Louisiano? Where are the supplies, ammunition, guns, trucks that Mussolini has promised? Where is the fuel?

Barbasetti points out that convoys are heading for Benghazi.

Not good enough, counters Rommel. That’s too far away. Supplies must go to Tobruk, and take their chances with the RAF. After all, the Italian Navy’s purpose is to sail into danger!

Barbasetti leaves, shaken.

Early in the evening, Rommel gets a message from Italy’s Commando Supremo saying that two British divisions have been identified by radio intercepts as moving through the Qattara depression to the south. The news seems improbable. Rommel sends scarce Luftwaffe planes to determine that the report is nonsense.

Rommel is having a rough day. He calls Field Marshal Albert Kesselring for more Luftwaffe support, and is told that there is nothing available. The Luftwaffe is being pressed to provide major support for battles around Stalingrad. The pilots Rommel has are few in number and weary from continuous fighting, short supplies, and difficult conditions. German Stuka pilots are apparently jettisoning their bombs - on friend and foe alike - when they see British Hurricanes or P-40s.

Rommel points out to Kesselring that his recovery teams cannot scavenge the battlefields for replacements. Kesselring asks about the use of captured equipment and vehicles. Rommel isn’t capturing them any more. And he’s running out of ammunition and spares for the captured equipment he’s got.

Morale among frontline troops is sagging, too. German and Italian troops are exhausted from continuous bombardment. That morning alone , 160 German infantrymen of 15th Panzer Division have surrendered to British patrols. They just could not take it anymore. Generalleutenant Heinz von Randow, commanding 21st Panzer Division, reports his men are depressed by the bombing, that seems to take place every hour on the hour. 21st Panzer Division men, watching the tight formations of British and South African bombers, call the strikes “Party Rally raids” after pre-war demonstrations at Nuremberg.

Nonetheless, Rommel is determined to take action. 21st Panzer Division is in position with its Mark III and Mark IV tanks as a mobile reserve. The Afrika Korps is down to fewer than 150 panzers, including several ancient Mark IIs. Their sector of the front is held by the remains of the Trieste Motorized Division and its 34 outdated M13/40 tanks. The south is held by Italian and German paratroopers and the Ariete Armored Division. In the north, everything depends on the German 15th Panzer, 90th Light and 164th Divisions.

That evening, the British resume the offensive. The 2nd/23rd Australian Battalion attacks again, to find the Germans have withdrawn from the first 1,000 yards. The Australians move forward and consolidate their positions.

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