Second Battle of Alamein (30-31 October 1942)

30 October 1942

Atlantic Ocean : Convoy SL 125 heads home from Freetown with 37 cargo ships, and runs into a U-boat wolfpack northeast of Madeira, opening a seven day battle with 10 U-boats. The Germans eagerly tear into the convoy, sinking the President Doumer with 174 seamen drowned. As the Germans pour their undersea resources into the SL 125 battle, they ignore the massive Allied convoys bearing down on French North Africa.

Those convoys, in fact, are now at sea. 600 vessels carrying an assault force of 90,000 men (with 200,000 follow-up) are bearing down on French North Africa. The convoys have sailed 1,500 miles from Britain and 3,000 from the United States. The only Allied airbase in the area is Gibraltar, which is still 500 miles from Algiers. The small strip there is overcrowded with P-38s and Spitfires (in American and British service) - 350 aircraft all told. All these aircraft and ships in Gibraltar’s harbor are visible and continuously studied by German Navy Lt. Hans Redl in Algeciras.

This first Anglo-American invasion of World War II is very much a patchwork affair. There are 370 merchant ships and about 300 warships. Many of the latter have been yanked from the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, which has reduced convoy escorts in the Atlantic and suspended convoys to Russia. Allied shipping programs around the world have been disrupted by the call-up of tugs, trawlers, tankers, transports, and store ships.

American troops headed for North Africa have rehearsed in Chesapeake Bay or Scotland. The Army Air Force has not been able to spare aircraft or men to train with the ground troops in ground-air cooperation. The training has been rushed. The 39th US Infantry Regiment, for example, has sailed from America with 60 days supplies and 10 units of fire for all weapons. Its vehicles have to be landed for waterproofing and re-stowing in tactical order on arrival in Scotland - with only two weeks before leaving for war.

The British forces earmarked for Torch are equally green, having spent most of the war in home defense. Their exercises in August have shown that more training - for which there is no time - is needed.

So far, Britain’s two invasions of the war are Madagascar and Dieppe. The first was sucessful for British but it was against an isolated Vichy French force, distant from its homeland, under complete air and sea superiority. The French are still holding out. Dieppe has been a ghastly failure.

The British techniques and equipment are a fairly proven force, hardened by repeated defeats. Nonetheless, their tactics and weaponry - the Lee-Enfield rifle and Bren gun - are capable and tried. The American tactics are poor - textbooks say that troops are to move through valleys and make hilltops the flanks - and their weaponry - M-1 rifles and M-3 Stuart tanks - untried.

The French defenders, however, are a known factor. There are 55,000 of them in Morocco, 50,000 in Algeria, 15,000 in Tunisia. Most are native infantry units with French officers, leavened with Foreign Legion regiments, Chasseurs d’Afrique, and colorful Zouaves. These forces, left out of the 1940 defeat, are veteran troops, at home in North Africa, experienced at desert war. Veteran outfits like the Foreign Legion are the stuff of legends. Even so, their rifles and equipment are obsolescent. They will have to rely on discipline to make up for technical deficiencies.

They are backed up by 12 units of motorized field artillery, and about 270 tanks in Morocco and Algeria, mostly Hotchkiss H35s and Somua S35s, armed with 37 mm guns. In 1940, these were among the best tanks in Europe. But they are outclassed by the British and American Sherman.

The French deploy about 500 planes, including a few Dewoitine 520s, which are outstanding fighters, able to take on the German Me 109. The rest are a mix of elderly MS 406s and Curtiss Hawks. Even so, they are equal to or superior to the British Sea-Hurricane and the American F4F. Until the Americans and British can seize airfields for their Spitfires and P-38s, the French will be able to seriously interfere with the Allied invasion.

The French Navy is another intangible. France’s most powerful battleship, Richelieu, is at Dakar, too far away to intervene. But her sister, Jean Bart, uncompleted, has been towed to Casablanca to avoid German or British seizure. She cannot move, but her 15-inch guns are operating. The other French ships in North Africa are light cruisers and destroyers. The main fleet, led by the modern battlecruisers Strasbourg and Dunkerque, are poised to intervene, and could do so with deadly effect.

Behind the French defenses lurk the 100-lb. gorilla - German and Italian forces in Sicily and Italy. The Nazis have 298 planes in Sardinia and Sicily, and the Italians deploy 574, all 200 miles from Tunis or Bizerte. If Hitler chooses to intervene in French North Africa, he can do so quickly.

Seventy miles north of the Nile Delta, four British destroyers wage a 16-hour chase of the German U-559, finally catching her. U-559’s skipper scuttles his damaged sub, but before it goes to the bottom, Lt. Tony Fasson, Able Seaman Colin Grazier, and Canteen Assistant Tommy Brown enter the submarine and unscrew its Enigma machine from its mount.

With water streaming in, Fasson and Grazier hand up the machine to Brown, along with its documents, keypads, and ciphers. Brown grabs the Enigma and hurls it into his whaleboat. Seconds later, the U-boat, with Fasson and Grazier aboard, goes to the bottom. Both receive posthumous George Crosses. Brown receives the George Medal.

In a bizarre follow-up, British authorities learn that Brown is only 16 years old, having lied about his age to join the Royal Navy. He is immediately discharged and sent home. Two years later, he is killed while trying to rescue his two sisters, who had been trapped in their slum tenement during a fire.

The U-559 seizure is critical to the Royal Navy. The soaked and priceless Enigma machine contains the keys to the major German U-boat codes Shark and Triton.

Stalingrad , Russia : At Stalingrad, fighting dies down as both sides are exhausted. Chuikov’s men still hold the Mamayev Kurgan, a few factory buildings, and a narrow strip of the Volga Bank. The Swastika flies over the rest of Stalingrad.

German quartermasters start issuing winter kit to their troops, fearing a repeat of the previous winter’s horrors, which caught the Germans to thinly clad. The 1942 German winter kit includes reversible trousers and jacket, field gray, and white.

German troops also fight another fierce battle against a determined enemy - lice. “For a time being there was no point in even thinking of washing,” writes a German soldier. “Today I killed my first batch of eight lice.”

Russian Hiwis tell the Germans what to do - bury each article of clothing under the ground with just one corner left above the ground. The lice will move there and can be burned off.

German troops are suffering from lice and many other ailments - jaundice, dysentery, typhus, and paratyphus. 55 percent of 6th Army’s deaths in the age groups 17 to 22 are caused by disease. Doctors in Berlin are puzzled that well-trained soldiers eating balanced rations, and engaged in physical activity, could be dropping so quickly.

The doctors attribute the high sickness and death rate to cumulative stress and short rations.

El Alamein , Egypt : At El Alamein, RAF Desert Air Force P-40s and Hurricanes continue to dominate the skies. Both aircraft are inferior technically to the German Me-109, but the Germans are outnumbered, outgunned, and short on fuel and pilots. Desert ir Force has total air dominance over Alamein battlefield thanks to great organisation of RAF Vice Marshal Mary Conningham and Tommy Erhearst and excellently equipped Egyptian airbases. At the other side of hill though Rommel and Panzer Army Afrika feel like they have been complately abandoned by Kesselring and Luftwaffe.

Montgomery spends most of the morning writing out his directive for Operation Supercharge. Its object is to “destroy the enemy armored forces” and “bring about the disintegration of the whole enemy army.”

All day long, British troops maneuver in their rear areas, while commanding officers and adjutants visit the front, planning the next moves.

On the German side, 600 tons of fuel arrives in Tobruk with last Italian tanker, enough for 24 hours of operations. Axis truck convoys head east along the Via Balbia - the Coast Road - and immediately come under heavy bombing from RAF air raids , slowing their advance. Rommel orders his staff to prepare a withdrawal plan.

That evening, the battle resumes. The Australian 20th Brigade is assigned with driving north to the sea to finally eliminate the Axis salient, held by the 1st Battalion, 361st German Infantry Regiment and the 125th Regiment.

The Australians plan to send three battalions north to grab a point called Barrel Hill. From there, two battalions will turn right and cut of the German strongpoint, called Thompson’s Post, while everyone else heads for the sea.

Behind them, the 24th Australian Brigade will advance, backed by the 2nd/3rd Pioneer Battalion, to cut off the pocket, hopefully sealing off the enemy. The Australians receive support from British 23rd Armoured Brigade’s Valentine tanks and Australian, New Zealand, and Highland Division artillery - a grand total of 312 field guns and 48 medium guns, hurling 64,000 rounds. Overhead, three squadrons of A-20s Boston bombers from Desert Air Force drop 85 tons of bombs into the area.

The bombardment has the desired effect. 2nd/32nd Australians covers the 2,000 yards to the railway line with little resistance. They take 175 prisoners from the 1st Battalion of the 361st German Regiment. 400 yards further, the Australians reach just south of Coast Road, and set up their 500-yard diameter position called Saucer, encountering three German doctors and their orderlies, with their wounded. The doctors stay in the Australian area, and tend both sides’ wounded.

As 2nd/32nd digs in, 2nd/48th and 2nd/24th Australian Battalions move up, followed by the Pioneers. In the dark, the Australians lose track of each other, and identify themselves with profanity.

2nd/24th and 2nd/48th Australian Battalions swing east to cut off Thompson’s Post as midnight approaches. They have 2,250 yards to Thompson’s Post.

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31 October 1942

With the “Ike recall” story front-page news in the States, President Roosevelt is asked for comment. He says, “I do not like to comment on the movement of Army officers, and it’s inappropriate to print such stories, as such information is of value to the enemy.”

Meanwhile, Eisenhower cables to his wife to let her know, in strictest confidence, that he is headed for Gibraltar. “I hope you won’t be disturbed or worried,” Ike says. “War inevitably carries its risks to life and limb - but the chances, in my case are all in my favor - a fact which you must remember. Moreover - even if the worst should ever happen to me, please don’t be too upset. I truly feel that what the United States and the world are facing today is so much bigger than anyone of us can even comprehend, that personal sacrifice and loss must not be allowed to overwhelm any of us.”

El Alamein , Egypt : At El Alamein, the 2nd/24th Australians advance at 1 a.m., under a covering barrage of artillery. Despite the thunder and shrapnel, the German defense is as determined as ever. 2nd/24th Australian Battalion has to storm enemy posts with grenade and bayonet, battling machine guns and 88mm guns. One company loses its company commander. 2nd/24th Australian Battalion is down to 84 men by the time it consolidates its position.

2nd/48th Australian Battalion suffers, too. One company is reduced to five men. Sgt. Kibby takes command of a company whose CO is killed, and leads a dozen men to attack a German position. German fire drives Kibby and his men to ground. Kibby leaps up and hurls grenades at the post, silencing the defenders. German fire cuts Kibby down. He receives a posthumous Victoria Cross. 2nd/48th is down to 48 men.


William Henry Kibby

2nd/24th, despite its massive losses, is ordered to see if Thompson’s Post is unoccupied. Col. Weir, the battalion CO, leads 15 men in the patrol. He and his men move silently through the dark, penetrate the outer wire - and then come under German fire. Thompson’s Post is occupied by Germans. Weir withdraws.

The Germans counterattack the two battered battalions, who are fighting with about 120 men. The Australians fire and fall back, taking 200 PoWs with them, to the Saucer. Among the wounded is Col. Weir.

There the Australians find 2nd/32nd and the Pioneers have been able to dig some positions, and two batteries of 6-lbr. anti-tank guns, one of them Rhodesian, are deployed. The Australians have taken heavy casualties, but neither reached the sea nor Thompson’s Post.

At 4 a.m., the Australians are ready to attack again. Among their leaders is Captain Rosevear, whose official biography says he was born in 1900, but adds: “When he enlisted under the name of H.G. Brown in 1916 Rosevear gave his year of birth as 1895.”

The Australian forces, now the extreme right flank of the entire 8th Army, resume the drive to the coast, supported by artillery. The attack fails. German machine guns and rifle fire stop the Australians cold. The Australians dig in.

After an hour, a German officer 200 yards away walks towards the Australians, under a white flag. He tells the Australians that further resistance is futile, and that surrender will be no reflection on their courage. The Australians answer with remarks that are “not in the best of taste.”

Meanwhile, the 40th Royal Tank Regiment, under Lt. Col. J.L. Finigan, picks its way past the Fig Orchard on the west side of Thompson’s Post, to reach the railway line. Finigan meets up with a wounded Col. Hammer and finds that 40th RTR is east of the Australians. The tanks head for the Saucer, and join the defense. The seven-foot high Valentine tanks, armed only with 2-lbr. guns, are highly visible and vulnerable. (Unfortunetely most of Montgomery’s armor was like that during battle : Weakly armored and outgunned , mechanically unreliable , high profile easily spotted vehicles.)

Rommel is aware of the situation, and he drives straight to Sidi Abd el Rahman, west of the Saucer, to personally lead the relief operation, using troops from 21st Panzer and 90th Light Divisions. Rommel personally leads the attack. The vehicles and men assemble at 11 a.m. and the RAF bombers and fighter bombers arrives at 11:05. Rommel’s charisma keeps the German attack rolling, and they rumble towards 40th RTR’s Valentines. The German tanks have a range of 1,200 yards. The British, 400. The British tanks pack 37 mm guns, the German, 50 mm weapons. But the British tanks are backed up by Australian infantry and Rhodesian anti- tank guns.

At 11:30, the Germans attack with 15 tanks and infantry. Before they get in range, RAF Hawker Hurricane and P-40 fighter bombers and A-20 Boston bombers streak in, blasting German tanks and scattering infantry. The Germans swing left and charge into the defenders. The Germans wreck two Rhodesian anti-tank guns, while British Valentine tanks try to maneuver against the enemy, screening them away from the Saucer through maneuver, bluff, and the occasional well-aimed shell. The Valentines knock out an 88 mm gun and its trailer, but most Valentines are shredded.

All afternoon the battle rages, with smoke and sand swirling around the Saucer. Sometime in the afternoon, the Germans run out of ammunition, and retreat, leaving behind four wrecked tanks and several other vehicles. 21 of the Valentines knocked out (though several can be recovered and repaired) and 44 crew members lie dead. The surviving tanks have damaged radiators, fuel tanks, and batteries, so only 10 can rumble back.

The Australians are impressed by the British 40th RTR, and call their action “one of the most magnificent of the war.”

The plight of the Saucer’s defenders is not lost on General Leslie Morshead , 9th Australian Division commander, who knows his battalions have been fighting for 18 hours straight. That evening, he sends in the 24th Australian Brigade to relieve the Saucer’s defenders.

Brigadier Godfrey’s Australians move into position, and dig in. The defense of the Saucer continues on into midnight.

Meanwhile, Rommel watches the battle. He notes that the RAF attacks his positions 34 times in eight hours. However, he re-opens the link to Thompson’s Post to evacuate that position. Rommel’s has 260 tanks left - 120 German and 140 Italian - against Monty’s 800. The attrition of battle favors British forces as Monty intended.

Montgomery, aware that his troops are massing slowly, postpones Operation Supercharge until the evening of November 1.

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