Second Battle of Alamein (different perspectives)

Eighth Army’s Greatest Victories - Adrian Turner

At 2140 on that same evening, 474 Allied guns commenced a tremendous bombardment of the Axis batteries. This inflicted considerable damage on its targets and greatly heartened the Allied soldiers, but its concentrated fury also carried a deeper message. It gave notice to friend and foe alike that the days of ‘mobile artillery battle groups’ were gone for ever.

High above the barrage, another practical demonstration of the change in attitude which the change in command had brought about was taking place. The Allied airmen, in particular the Desert Air Force, were by now not just supporting but virtually part of Eighth Army. The first squadron in action, as at Alam Halfa, was No. 73, but whereas at Alam Halfa it had been on the defensive in a defensive battle, now it, like Eighth Army, was taking the offensive. Its Hurricanes were out looking for trouble, strafing targets of opportunity, troop positions, vehicles, supply dumps, often well behind enemy lines. Tedder’s six squadrons of Wellingtons were also in action, some provided with special equipment with which to jam Axis wireless signals but most joining in the attack on the enemy defences, dropping 125 tons of bombs – a contribution that passed almost unnoticed amid the thunder of the British guns below.

The barrage lasted until 2155. There followed a grim pause for a further five minutes, then the fire switched to the Axis infantry positions, rolling slowly forward across the area of the assault. Part of the 62nd Infantry Regiment of the Italian Trento Division was so heavily hit that it abandoned its forward defences, much to the benefit of 26th Australian Brigade which was to advance in this particular area.

Behind the moving curtain of steel, the infantrymen from the Australian, New Zealand, South African and 51st Highland Divisions pushed forward into the ‘Devil’s Gardens’. Wimberley’s Scotsmen were led not only by their officers but by their kilted pipers, among them nineteen-year-old Piper Duncan McIntyre of 5th Black Watch who, hit three times, finally collapsed but continued to play until he died.

By midnight, all four divisions had completed the initial stage of their advance to positions which lay about a mile inside the Axis minefields and were known collectively as ‘Red Line’. So far casualties had been light. But when at 0100, fresh infantry units advanced towards ‘Blue Line’, their final objectives, the picture changed. They encountered denser minefields, heavier defences and an Axis artillery which was now recovering from its ordeal. Amidst the clouds of dust churned up by the shells of both sides, it became increasingly difficult to keep direction. Each battalion therefore was led by a ‘navigating officer’ who went ahead, compass in hand, counting his paces, behind whom white tape was laid to mark the line of advance. This was not a task for the faint-hearted – in 7th Black Watch six ‘navigating officers’ were killed or wounded that night.

Nonetheless, despite all the problems, despite all the hideous perils of the ‘Devil’s Gardens’, 30th Corps had captured about 80 per cent of its objectives by the early morning of 24 October. 24th Australian Brigade had made only a feint attack to the north, but 26th Brigade had reached ‘Blue Line’ and 20th Brigade was about 500 yards short. The New Zealanders had gained the whole of their section of Miteirya Ridge, though they were unable to exploit to the south-west of it as planned. 3rd South African Brigade in the extreme south had also captured part of the Ridge, while 2nd South African Brigade, between 3rd Brigade and the New Zealanders, was also about 500 yards short.

The main difficulties had been encountered by 51st Highland Division. On the extreme left, two companies of 7th Black Watch under Captain Cathcart, though reduced in strength to about forty men, had reached ‘Blue Line’, but a series of strong fortifications had prevented the remainder of Wimberley’s men from getting nearer than some 1,500 yards to the east of this. The division had also suffered the greatest number of casualties, about 1,000, while the New Zealand casualties were 800 and the Australian and South African 350 each.

In return 30th Corps had taken about 1,500 prisoners from Trento and the German 164th Light Division, and had killed the enemy commander. The bombardment and the bombing had so shattered the Axis communications that, soon after dawn, Stumme set out for the front to check up on the situation for himself. He was accompanied only by an Intelligence officer, Colonel Büchting, and the driver of his staff car, Corporal Wolf, and not realizing the depth of the Allied advance, he drove into an area held by Australian troops. These promptly opened fire on the car, just at the moment apparently that Stumme was getting out of it. Büchting was hit in the head and died soon afterwards, and Wolf swung the car round to make off at high speed, unaware of the fact that his general was holding on to the outside. Stumme suffered from high blood pressure and perhaps not surprisingly he had a fatal heart attack. His body was found next day. This incident caused further confusion at the Headquarters of Panzer Army Afrika. It was some time before von Thoma took temporary command and noon before Hitler contacted Rommel to request that he return immediately to the Desert.

Unfortunately the British armour had not enjoyed a similar success. The supporting tanks of 9th and 23rd Armoured Brigades were up with their infantrymen, though both had suffered losses to mines, but Lumsden’s 10th Corps had been unable to pass through the infantry positions as planned. 1st Armoured Division, advancing behind 51st Highland, was held up by fire from unsubdued Axis strongpoints. 10th Armoured’s sappers under Lieutenant Colonel McMeekan, himself wounded by a bursting shell, not only came under fire but found the minefields they had to clear were thick with booby traps. Nonetheless they had cleared four routes to the Miteirya Ridge by dawn. Custance’s 8th Armoured Brigade moved up these but when the first regiment, the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry, attempted to cross the Ridge, it encountered another minefield on the crest and also came under heavy fire from anti-tank guns which knocked out eight Grants and eight Crusaders. Accordingly 8th Armoured halted just below the crest, while 24th Armoured under Brigadier Kenchington deployed as best it could in the minefields to the east of it.

Nor did matters go well with the diversionary attack by 13th Corps in the south. Here the attackers had to penetrate the two British minefields, code-named ‘January’ and ‘February’, which had been retained by Rommel after the Battle of Alam Halfa. Harding’s 7th Armoured Division was given this task, supported by 131st Brigade which consisted of three battalions of the Queen’s Royal Regiment from West Surrey. At the same time, two battalions of the Fighting French under Colonel Amilakvari were to seize a position west of Mount Himeimat, onto which they would then move later.

As it happened everything possible went wrong. The initial infantry attack by 1/7th Queens, despite very heavy casualties, broke through ‘January’, but then the enemy, mainly the Ramcke and Folgore parachutists, counterattacked, killing Lieutenant Colonel Burton and taking most of his men prisoner. The sappers under Lieutenant Colonel Corbett-Winder cleared four gaps through ‘January’, earning the personal thanks of Horrocks, but they were unable to make a similar clearance through ‘February’ for 22nd Armoured Brigade which was left perilously situated between the two minefields. To complete the sad story, the tanks of the German ‘Battlegroup Kiel’, evading the Crusaders supporting supporting the Fighting French, fell on Amilakvari’s men, killing a large number of them including their leader.

13th Corps made no attempt to continue its advance during the daylight hours of the 24th, but elsewhere there was plenty of action, not least in the air. With the dawn, the Desert Air Force was out in strength; the RAF Baltimores, the South African Bostons, the Hurricane and Kittyhawk fighter-bombers all engaged the Axis army. The German 88s had to turn their barrels skywards to deal with this threat, as a result of which they gave away their positions to the Allied ground forces who were able to take advantage of this on several occasions. In the south, the cannon-armed Hurricane IIDs of No. 6 Squadron RAF and No. 7 Squadron SAAF were in constant action, gaining belated revenge for the misfortunes of the Fighting French by putting ‘Battlegroup Kiel’ out of action.

In the north, during the day and the following night, both the Australians and the South Africans completed the capture of their original objectives; while in the course of a conference with Leese, Lumsden and Freyberg which began at 0915, Montgomery directed 51st Highland and 1st Armoured Divisions to reach their planned positions and the New Zealanders and 10th Armoured to ‘crumble’ to the south. He made it clear that he would be prepared to accept large tank losses if necessary but he would not tolerate ‘any more hanging back’. ‘This action,’ he tells us in his Memoirs, ‘produced immediate results.’

In accordance with the Army Commander’s instructions, 2nd Seaforths delivered a spirited attack at 1500. This gained most of 51st Division’s remaining objectives, though some were not taken until the night of the 25th/26th, and the last enemy stronghold code-named ‘Aberdeen’, situated on the eastern end of Kidney Ridge, finally surrendered only at dawn on the 27th. Fisher’s 2nd Armoured Brigade followed up the infantrymen and by about 1600 it had reached the front line, though it was unable to advance further as Montgomery had intended.


Eighth Army’s Greatest Victories - Adrian Turner

Not that it mattered too much at this stage, for now the enemy, in Montgomery’s words, did ‘exactly what I wanted’: 15th Panzer and Littorio Armored Divisions counter-attacked. 2nd Armoured Brigade, aided by the anti-tank guns of the infantry units, held firm, and the enemy retreated having lost twenty-six tanks. Fisher had lost thirty-one, but Eighth Army could afford this rate of exchange, while Panzerarmee Afrika could not.

The events of the night of 24th/25th October would quickly dampen Montgomery’s pleasure. In the south, the remaining battalions of 131st Brigade, 1/5th and 1/6th Queens, broke through the ‘February’ minefield, though with heavy losses, but all attempts to get the tanks through the gaps which the infantry had cleared behind them were thwarted by violent antitank fire; Harding, who was inspecting their progress, had a narrow escape when a shell burst beside his jeep, killing his ADC Captain Cosgrave who was driving it. The armour remained between ‘January’ and ‘February’ until the following night, when it was withdrawn to the east, and at the same time, 131st Brigade fell back between the minefields, suffering further losses in the process. Also that night, 69th Brigade from 50th Division delivered an attack in the Munassib Depression but it too failed with heavy casualties in a maze of anti-personnel mines. This concluded major operations on the southern front, but at least 13th Corps had performed its main task. 21st Panzer and Ariete were still kept in the south, well away from the real break-in zone.

The chief problems on the night of the 24th/25th, however, concerned 10th Armoured Division. Gatehouse commander of 10th Armored Division had postponed his attack until darkness had fallen, but when 8th Armoured Brigade began its advance at 2200, it was illuminated by enemy aircraft dropping parachute flares. A bombing attack followed which hit the supporting vehicles of the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry, setting twenty-two petrol or ammunition lorries ablaze. The enemy artillery promptly opened fire also, halting both the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry and 3rd Royal Tanks which was following it. Custance’s third regiment, the Staffordshire Yeomanry, was able to proceed through the minefields, followed by the other regiments later, while by about 0500 on the 25th, Kenchington’s 24th Armoured Brigade, after many difficulties, also forced its way through the minefields to link up with 2nd Armoured Brigade on its right.

Unfortunately, prior to this, Custance had suggested to Gatehouse that the advance beyond the Miteirya ridge should be abandoned. Gatehouse, after vainly trying to contact Lumsden by wireless, returned to his Main Headquarters from which he spoke to his Corps Commander on the field telephone, strongly recommending that the operation be halted. At 0230, Lumsden in turn passed on the message to de Guingand, adding that he was inclined to agree. De Guingand spoke to Leese whom he found had been told by Freyberg that 10th Armoured was not ‘properly set up for the attack’ and therefore was also doubtful whether the armour could carry out its mission. The Chief of Staff rightly decided that Montgomery must be consulted; he asked both Leese and Lumsden to attend a conference with the Army Commander at 0330. ‘There was a certain “atmosphere” present,’ reports de Guingand of this meeting – and not just because ‘a positive inferno caused by enemy aircraft was taking place outside’. ‘Montgomery listened to what his Corps Commanders had to say,’ relates General Jackson. ‘Both believed that the battle had gone so wrong that it should be broken off to avoid further profitless expenditure of life and resources.’

The Hammering of Panzers

At this tense, critical moment, Montgomery, according to de Guingand, remained ‘cool and calm’. He gave his orders ‘very quietly’ but he made it quite clear that his basic intentions were unchanged, though he agreed that, from 8th Armoured Brigade, only the Staffordshire Yeomanry should proceed beyond the Miteirya Ridge for the time being; and he warned Lumsden that if necessary he would appoint new leaders for the armour who would ensure that his commands were carried out.

The only time that Montgomery became roused was when, at Lumsden’s request, he contacted Gatehouse on the field telephone and, he relates in his Memoirs, ‘discovered to my horror that he himself was some 16,000 yards (nearly 10 miles) behind his leading armoured brigades. I spoke to him in no uncertain voice, and ordered him to go forward at once and take charge of his battle; he was to fight his way out, and lead his division from in front and not from behind.’

In reality, while it is difficult not to admire what Liddell Hart calls Montgomery’s ‘unflinching determination’ and Horrocks his ‘steely determination when things go badly, which is the hallmark of a great commander’, he was scarcely fair to Gatehouse who had only remained at his Main Headquarters so that he could more easily be contacted as Lumsden had asked; Gatehouse indeed was the very last man to ‘lead his division from behind’. Nor were his anxieties unfounded. In the early dawn of 25 October, the Staffordshire Yeomanry came under heavy fire from 88s losing ten tanks, after which Gatehouse, contrary to his orders, withdrew them behind the Ridge. Currie’s 9th Armoured Brigade and Kenchington’s 24th Armoured Brigade were equally unable to make progress, while further north Fisher’s 2nd Armoured Brigade also lost ten tanks to 88mm fire. The fact was that despite all the propaganda then or later about the value of the Shermans, the Axis anti-tank guns, especially the 88s, were still the most deadly weapons on the battlefield, particularly now when the Allied armour had to move through minefields, of which more were hurriedly being laid by the enemy beyond the Miteirya Ridge.

Thus Montgomery’s orders had little material effect and in consequence many commentators, including his biographer, have tended to belittle the importance of this conference. By contrast de Guingand considers it to have been the first of his ‘stepping stones to victory’.


Eighth Army’s Greatest Victories - Adrian Turner

There can be no doubt that Guingand’s description is correct. In the first place, Montgomery’s resolution had the same effect as Auchinleck’s much more loudly praised intervention when Cunningham had wavered during CRUSADER – it did not win the battle but it did prevent it from being abandoned prematurely. Yet of the two, Montgomery’s action was by far the more commendable. Not only was it more difficult for him to take a detached view of events because he was closer to the scene, but while Auchinleck had been sustained by the insistence of both Cunningham’s corps commanders that the fight should continue, both Montgomery’s corps commanders believed that the battle should be broken off. It was also far more important that Alamein should not be abandoned prematurely – the implications for TORCH and even more for Malta would surely have been catastrophic.

Moreover there are other gains than purely material ones. Ever since he had taken over command, Montgomery had been resolved to build up effective co-operation between the different branches of his army. It was because he felt that there was no such resolve in 10th Corps that he was particularly critical of its commander – though here again he was by no means fair to Lumsden who personally did genuinely believe in co-operation. It does seem, however, that not all of Lumsden’s subordinates shared his attitude and the value of the conference on the night of 24th/25th October was that it demonstrated Montgomery’s insistence that the needs of the armour must be subsidiary to those of the Army as a whole. ‘The message got through,’ reports Ronald Lewin, and ‘for the rest of the battle, perhaps for the rest of the campaign, there was no more of that divisive spirit … which in the past had so often prevented the British armour from behaving as though it were a part of the army.’ This was a credit to all concerned. It should be emphasized that to no one was it more welcome than to Lieutenant General Lumsden.

Montgomery’s firmness, though, was by no means his only virtue. ‘Within the chosen limits of his planning,’ declares Liddell Hart, ‘he [Montgomery] showed consummate ability in varying the direction of his thrusts and developing a tactical leverage to work the opponent off balance.’ This ‘readiness to vary his aim according to circumstances, on this and later occasions,’ Liddell Hart adds, ‘was a better tonic to the troops and a greater tribute to his generalship’ than any attempts to ensure that his battle went exactly ‘according to plan’.

By midday on 25 October, Montgomery had realized that attempts to exploit to the south-west of Miteirya Ridge were likely to prove too costly – thereby belatedly confirming the opinions of his armoured commanders. He therefore abandoned these and withdrew 10th Armoured Division to reorganize – apart from Kenchington’s 24th Armoured Brigade which he now transferred to the command of Briggs’ 1st Armored Division. At the same time he maintained his principal dual aims of ‘crumbling’ the enemy infantry, and meeting the counter-attacks of the enemy armour when this tried to intervene, with his own tanks and anti-tank guns. He therefore ordered that 30th Corps should complete the capture of its original objectives, while 26th Australian Brigade ‘crumbled’ northward and 1st Armoured Division continued to push westward in the area of the Kidney Ridge.

During 25 October, the enemy armour did make persistent counterattacks, but these were first hampered by the Allied airmen, then finally repelled by 2nd and 24th Armoured Brigades, fighting in defensive positions of their own choosing and supported by the anti-tank gunners of 7th Battalion, The Rifle Brigade which formed part of Bosvile’s 7th Motor Brigade, and by those of 2/13th and 2/17th Battalions of 20th Australian Brigade. The achievements of the Australians were particularly commendable for they were still largely equipped with the older 2-pounder guns – a fact which strongly suggests that the failures under earlier regimes had been due less to inadequate weapons than to inadequate use of those weapons.

Then during the night of 25th/26th October, the Highland Division, as mentioned earlier, and though its total casualties increased to somewhere in the region of 2,100, completed the conquest of almost all its remaining initial objectives, while 26th Australian Brigade delivered a brilliant stroke to the north. This was a totally co-ordinated effort by all arms, for 2/48th and 2/24th Battalions – the third, 2/23rd, was kept in reserve – were supported by thirty Valentines from 40th Royal Tanks, seven regiments of field or medium artillery and 115 tons of bombs dropped by Tedder’s Wellingtons. The main objective was ‘Point 29’, the most prominent feature on a spur to the north of the Australian position which it effectively dominated.

Lieutenant Colonel Hammer, CO of 2/48th Australian Battalion had learned from patrols and the interrogation of prisoners that there was only one small minefield between his men and Point 29. Two of his companies advanced 1,000 yards to seize this, gaps were quickly cleared by the sappers, and then Hammer’s third company mounted on Bren-gun carriers charged forward towards Point 29 under cover of an artillery bombardment, gained another 1,000 yards in nine minutes, took the enemy completely by surprise, and captured the position by 0200 on the 26th. On Hammer’s right flank, 2/24th, though with heavier casualties, also made important progress. The enemy had lost some 300 men of whom 173 Germans and 67 Italians were taken prisoner, and Private Gratwick of 2/48th, who had destroyed one enemy strongpoint and attacked another single-handed, had won a posthumous Victoria Cross.

On the evening of the 25th, Field Marshal Rommel had resumed his command of Panzerarmee Afrika, but since the counter-attacks that his subordinates had been launching had been in accordance with the tactics decreed by Rommel before his departure, his return made no difference whatever to the nature of the fighting. On the contrary, declaring that his aim was ‘to throw the enemy out of our defence line at all costs and to re-occupy our old positions’, he merely repeated the assaults on Eighth Army. He thereby continued to play into Montgomery’s hands. Throughout 26 October, the Axis armour struck out towards the Kidney Ridge and the newly lost Point 29 but all its moves were broken up, this time more by artillery fire and the raids of the Desert Air Force’s light bombers and fighter-bombers than by the British tanks.

By the end of this third day of battle, 15th Panzer’s tank losses had increased to a total of seventy-seven and those of Littorio to about fifty. 164th Light had also suffered heavily. ‘Rivers of blood’ as Rommel rather pathetically – and with some exaggeration – records, had been ‘poured out’ to no avail. That evening he ordered 21st Panzer, part of Ariete and supporting artillery up from the south, and 90th Light and Trieste forward from their reserve positions. At the same time Kesselring directed his airmen to make a maximum effort to support the major attack which Rommel proposed to deliver on the 27th.

Inevitably therefore 27 October was a day of savage clashes. The Axis pilots certainly did their best to assist their ground troops, even the obsolete Italian CR 42 biplanes, eight of which were lost, seeing combat. A major Stuka raid was completely dispersed by the Hurricanes of 33 and 213 Squadrons, though they lost three of their own machines in the process, and everywhere the Desert Air Force held its opponents in check. Meanwhile Coningham’s light bombers were equally effective, an attempt by 90th Light to engage the Australians on Point 29 being thwarted by air attacks and a very heavy artillery barrage before it could even come to grips with the defenders.

Fiercest of all, though, were the encounters in the Kidney Ridge area for not only did Rommel intend to attack here but so did 1st Armoured Division, urged on, it may be mentioned, by Lumsden. It was arranged that during the night of the 26th/27th, detachments of 7th Motor Brigade would seize low ridges about 2,000 yards west of Kidney Ridge, which the armour would use as bases from which to advance. The attempt on one of these ridges, code-named ‘Woodcock’, lost its way and failed to reach its objective. Next night, another attempt was made, this time by 4th Royal Sussex from 133rd Brigade. This battalion was also unable to reach ‘Woodcock’ and before it could dig in on unsuitable ground it was attacked at dawn on the 28th by enemy armour and overrun with the loss of forty-seven killed, including Lieutenant Colonel Murphy, and 342 taken prisoner.

In stark contrast was the action fought on 7th Motor Brigade’s other target, an unnamed ridge which went by the undramatic code name of ‘Snipe’. During the night of 26th/27th October, this was taken by 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Victor Buller Turner, the officer who had felt so inspired by Montgomery’s ‘absolutely thrilling’ explanation of his plan. Turner controlled less than 300 men in all, the most important part of his force being his anti-tank company under Major Thomas Bird with its thirteen 6-pounder guns, to which had been added half-a-dozen others from Lieutenant Alan Baer’s 239th Anti-Tank Battery of 76th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery. The 6-pounders first proved their worth at about 0400 on the 27th, when a Mark IV Special moved into the battalion’s position, only to be sent up in flames by a hit from the gun commanded by Sergeant Brown.

It was only the start of a day of frenzied action for the defenders of ‘Snipe’. As dawn broke, they sighted the tanks of 15th Panzer and Littorio Divisions under the overall command of Colonel Teege of the former’s 8th Panzer Regiment moving in their direction. At once they opened fire, totally destroying eleven tanks or guns and temporarily knocking out five more. ‘Bursts of unrestrained cheers,’ says Lucas Phillips, ‘ran through the garrison at the thrill of this dramatic success. A ripple of exaltation filled all ranks. From that moment they felt themselves to be on top of the enemy.’2 Shortly afterwards, ‘a single German soldier who had been lying concealed in the very centre,’ of the ‘Snipe’ position, ‘was seen to leap up and run at full speed westward. He was unarmed.’ Not a shot was fired at him and he made good his escape.

The enemy naturally retaliated, shelling the garrison from long range. Throughout the day, the anti-tank guns were gradually put out of action and their men killed or wounded. A number of unofficial crews were hastily banded together to serve the remaining guns, a particularly effective one being formed by Lieutenant Holt-Wilson, Sergeant Ayris and Rifleman Chard, a very tough character who, Lucas Phillips informs us, was ‘often in trouble when not fighting’.

At about 0730, 47th Royal Tanks, the leading regiment of 24th Armoured Brigade, moved up as intended but mistaking Turner’s men for the enemy, it too opened fire on them. Lieutenant Wintour drove over in a Bren-gun carrier and managed to halt the ‘friendly’ bombardment, and at about 0830, 47th Royal Tanks joined the ‘Snipe’ garrison – only to come under attack from enemy guns which destroyed seven Shermans and forced the remainder to retreat. Further south, 41st Royal Tanks was also checked and fell back with the loss of twelve of its number.

The Riflemen on ‘Snipe’, however, continued their resistance. At 0900, an attack by Italian infantry was beaten off. About an hour later, so was one by the Littorio Division. 15th Panzer, moving south of ‘Snipe’ to attack 24th Armoured Brigade, was next engaged by both Turner and Kenchington, eight German tanks in all being put out of action. Exasperated, at 1300, the Littorio Division delivered a full-scale assault on ‘Snipe’ from the south, preceded by a heavy bombardment which caused numerous casualties.

Only one 6-pounder could be brought to bear against this onslaught, that of Sergeant Charles Calistan, who was now alone, the other members of his detachment having been wounded. Turner and Lieutenant Jack Toms ran to join him. With their aid Calistan destroyed five Italian tanks but there were three more still advancing and the gun had only two rounds of ammunition left. Toms raced to his jeep, 100 yards away, loaded it with ammunition from a gun that was out of action and drove back, all under fire. Ten yards from Calistan, the jeep was set ablaze. Turner, followed by Corporals Francis and Barnett, hurried to help Toms. The ammunition was unloaded and carried to the gun, Turner being severely wounded in the head in the process. Calistan, who had calmly remained at his post, took careful aim and destroyed all three Italian tanks, one after the other.

All through the afternoon, the Riflemen continued to be shelled, Bird and Toms among others being wounded. Then at 1600, a new foe appeared. 21st Panzer had been heavily bombed on its way up from the south and it was again bombed as it tried to form up for Rommel’s great assault on the Allied lines. Part of this fell on 10th Hussars of Fisher’s 2nd Armoured Brigade which threw it back, claiming thirteen tanks destroyed. Moreover, as the Germans advanced they presented broadside targets to the ‘Snipe’ garrison which took full advantage of them. The panzers then turned on their tormentors, knocking out several guns. A Mark IV Special, its huge gun ‘hideously menacing’, closed to within 100 yards of the gun of Sergeant Cullen but his detachment held their ground and their gun and that of Sergeant Binks hit the target simultaneously.


Eighth Army’s Greatest Victories - Adrian Turner

About half-an-hour later, another group from 21st Panzer made a deliberate attack on ‘Snipe’ from the north. Only the guns of Sergeants Hine and Miles could be brought to bear. Miles was wounded and his men forced to take cover by machine-gun fire from the advancing armour. But Lieutenant Holt-Wilson’s crew were able to swing their gun round to face the threat and Sergeant Swann, whose own gun had been knocked out earlier, ran to that of the wounded Miles, loading, aiming and firing single-handed until, says Lucas Phillips, the gun crew ‘inspired by his leadership, jumped forward and joined him’. Between them the three 6-pounders set half-a-dozen panzers on fire and the remainder retired. Rommel’s planned counter-offensive had failed completely. At 2315, Turner’s men fell back to Eighth Army’s main positions. They had suffered some seventy casualties and all except one of the guns that were still serviceable had been so damaged that they had to be abandoned after being rendered unusable. 239th Battery successfully towed out the last remaining 6-pounder – that of Sergeant Ronald Wood.

A Committee of Investigation appointed to assess the Riflemen’s achievement a month later, ‘concluded’ reports Lucas Phillips, ‘that the minimum number of tanks burnt and totally destroyed was 32–21 German and 11 Italian – plus five self-propelled guns, and that certainly another 15, perhaps 20, tanks had been knocked out and recovered, making a grand total of 57’. Among the wrecks found afterwards were five of Rommel’s precious Mark IV Specials. Only a very few of the recovered casualties could have been repaired before the battle ended. The anti-tank gun, not the tank, was clearly the queen of the battlefield. Panzerarmee Afrika had long realized this; now the men of Eighth Army knew it as well.

Montgomery, according to Lucas Phillips, was ‘delighted’, as well he might be. Among the many decorations awarded were DCMs for Calistan, Swann and Chard, a DSO for Bird and a Victoria Cross for Turner, in honour, as the Official History beautifully puts it, of ‘his own gallantry in the action and that of all under his command’.

While Rommel was spending 26 and 27 October in furious but unimaginative attacks, Montgomery was once more demonstrating his calm adaptability. He ‘realized’ states the Official History, ‘that the impetus of his offensive was on the wane and he decided to regroup his army to create a reserve with which to restore it’ – and also to again vary the direction of his main thrust. During the 26th and 27th, the various preliminary moves were set in train. The operations of 13th Corps were abandoned and it was later decided that 7th Armoured Division, less Roddick’s 4th Light Armoured Brigade, should move north on the night of the 31st. 2nd New Zealand Division, including 9th Armoured Brigade, was pulled out of the line, its departure being covered by extending the fronts manned by 1st South African and 4th Indian Divisions. And at a conference with Leese and Lumsden at 0800 on the 28th, Montgomery decided to go onto the defensive in the Kidney Ridge area which would now be held by 10th Armoured Division. 1st Armoured Division retired to rest and reorganize, 24th Armoured Brigade, to its bitter regret, being disbanded and its tanks given to 2nd Armoured Brigade to replenish Fisher’s strength. Fighting continued around Kidney Ridge and in the skies above it, but the Desert Air Force proved so successful in attacking enemy concentrations that no major assault took place.

Attention now switched to the north. Montgomery’s new plan called for a preliminary thrust northward from Point 29 by the Australians on the night of the 28th/29th; to be followed by the major effort, an advance from the Australian position north-westward down the coast road which would start on the night of the 30th/31st and to which would be given the code name SUPERCHARGE. Montgomery wished this to be led by Freyberg, to whose command he intended to transfer a succession of British infantry brigades in order to sustain the momentum of the assault.

The preliminary attack by Morshead’s Australians achieved moderate success. It was well co-ordinated, being supported by artillery and by 40th and 46th Royal Tanks from 23rd Armoured Brigade, but it had to pass through heavily booby-trapped minefields and was opposed by strong fixed defences manned by resolute troops coming mainly from 90th and 164th Light. The Australians inflicted severe casualties on them and although the main German stronghold, which the Australians named ‘Thompson’s Post’, to the north-east of Point 29, held out, 20th Australian Brigade was able to outflank this to the west, threatening to cut off the defenders. Rommel was now becoming seriously alarmed, his anxiety increasing next day when three attacks by 90th Light on the Australians’ salient were beaten back by what Rommel had begun to call ‘the terrible British artillery’.

In London and Cairo too, a number of important individuals were also becoming seriously alarmed – by Eighth Army’s apparent lack of progress. On the morning of the 29th, Alexander, followed later by Tedder, arrived at Montogmery’s Headquarters to enquire anxiously as to his future plans. The Army Commander, who ‘radiated confidence’ according to de Guingand, was able to reassure them. He did, however, under prompting from de Guingand and Williams, agree to launch SUPERCHARGE further to the south – Intelligence reports were making it clear that Rommel, having anticipated the planned break-out in the north, was massing his German troops to meet it, whereas an attack just north of Kidney Ridge would, it seemed, be met by mainly Italian resistance.

Meanwhile the Australians were ordered to continue their northward assaults with the objectives both of making Rommel believe that this was still the crucial point and also of pinning down as many of his men as possible. The night of 29th/30th October was comparatively quiet, as were the daylight hours of the 30th – though in the air the Hurricanes of Nos. 33 and 238 Squadrons successfully dispersed a Stuka raid – but the next night the Australians again thrust forward. Their 26th Brigade failed to take Thompson’s Post but, moving north-west of this, it crossed the coastal road and cut off the bulk of 164th Light Division. During the attack, Sergeant William Kibby of 2/48th Battalion, who had displayed constant heroism from the start of the battle, lost his life engaging a machine-gun post single-handed after the remainder of his platoon had already fallen. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Rommel reacted violently. He first ordered a Stuka attack on the Australians but this was broken up by the Kittyhawks of Nos. 112 and 250 Squadrons. Then, ignoring the pleas of Graf von Sponeck commanding German 90th Light Division who urged full-scale infantry attacks on the Australian salient, he insisted on throwing 21st Panzer into the fight, thereby further whittling away his diminishing tank strength. The panzers made three attacks in all. The first was driven back by artillery fire and strikes by the Desert Air Force. The second and third were defeated by 40th Royal Tanks and the Rhodesian 289th Anti-Tank Battery of the 102nd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, transferred to join the Australians from 50th Division.

Still Rommel did not learn his lesson, ordering fresh attacks on the Australians on 1 November. He again planned to begin with a Stuka raid but at 0830, No. 112 Squadron’s Kittyhawks fell on Grman dive-bombers, shooting down seven of them, while the remainder dropped their bombs on their own troops. It appears that this postponed the enemy attack which did not begin until midday, but all afternoon the Germans hurled themselves against the greatly outnumbered 24th Australian Brigade – which had replaced 26th Brigade during the night – and the Rhodesian gunners. Yet despite heavy casualties, which included the deaths of Brigadier Godfrey and the gunners’ CO, Major Williamson, the defenders stood firm. In later years, Montgomery, while agreeing that ‘all did so well’, still singled out for ‘special praise’, ‘that magnificent 9th Australian Division’. Immediately after the battle, Horrocks went to congratulate the Divisional Commander. ‘Thank you, General’ replied Morshead. ‘The boys were interested.’

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Eighth Army’s Greatest Victories - Adrian Turner

The enemy did gain some success on the evening of 1 November, forcing 24th Brigade back south of the coastal road, thus enabling the defenders of Thompson’s Post to retire safely that night. But by then events in the north had become irrelevant. At Freyberg’s request, Montgomery, ‘most reluctantly’ according to Field Marshal Carver, had postponed SUPERCHARGE for twenty-four hours. The moon rose at 0100 on 2 November. Five minutes later, SUPERCHARGE began.

In essence this was LIGHTFOOT over again on a smaller scale. Once more the attack was accompanied by a ‘creeping barrage’, on this occasion laid down by the artillery from 2nd New Zealand, 51st Highland and 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions, all under the central control of Freyberg’s chief gunner, Brigadier Weir. Once more the Allied airmen took their part, the Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron ranging ahead, while sixty-eight Wellingtons, accompanied by Albacores to drop flares, bombed targets behind the enemy lines; one raid hit the Advanced Headquarters of the Afrika Korps, wrecking its communications and adding to von Thoma’s already impressive tally of battle-scars.

Under cover of these bombardments, the infantry attacked, but this time only on a narrow front of 4,000 yards between the base of the Australian salient and the northern point of Kidney Ridge; while to the south of the Ridge a flanking movement by 2nd and 5th Royal Sussex from 133rd Brigade captured ‘Woodcock’. The main assault was given to 2nd New Zealand Division supported by the Valentines of 23rd Armoured Brigade although it was not for the most part carried out by New Zealand soldiers. 6th New Zealand Brigade held the start-line in case of counter-attack, while 28th Maori Battalion from 5th New Zealand Brigade captured a strongpoint threatening the right flank of the advance, taking 162 German and 189 Italian prisoners for the loss of 33 killed and 75 wounded, including Lieutenant Colonel Baker. The principal formations used, however, were Brigadier Percy’s 151st Brigade from 50th Division – also known as the Durham Brigade since it was composed of 6th, 8th and 9th Battalions, Durham Light Infantry – and Brigadier Murray’s 152nd Brigade from 51st Highland Division. It should be noted that these were not independent brigade groups; on the contrary both came under command of 2nd New Zealand Division and were fully integrated with it.

These two brigades were called on to advance 4,000 yards by 0345. This would bring them to about half-a-mile eastward of the Rahman Track, beyond which rose the long, low Aqqaqir Ridge of which the highest point, Tell el Aqqaqir, lay due west of the southern boundary of the break-in. 152nd Brigade had captured all its objectives by the time scheduled, though not without casualties in the face of dogged resistance. Percy’s brigade met with more difficulties but it resolutely overcame these and it too had completed its allotted task by 0415.

Once more it was planned that the armour should develop the salient gained by the infantry. First Currie’s 9th Armoured Brigade, still under Freyberg’s command, would advance a further 2,000 yards, crossing both the Rahman Track and the Aqqaqir Ridge by daylight on 2 November, thereby finally breaking Rommel’s last line of defence which, as was mentioned earlier, was situated in this area. Then 1st Armoured Division, in which 8th Armoured Brigade had now joined 2nd Armoured Brigade, would pass through the gap thus created to fall on the rear of the enemy, and would be followed by 7th Armoured Division and perhaps 4th Light Armoured Brigade – which was ordered north on 2 November – later.

Once more the tanks were ordered to fight their own way out if the infantry should be checked and in view of the importance of Currie’s attack, Montgomery expressly stated that he would accept 100 per cent casualties if 9th Armoured succeeded in its task. The lion-hearted Currie was willing to take the risk and it is noteworthy that none of the armoured commanders raised any objections to these forthright and ominous instructions.

Currie’s brigade had been built up to 121 tanks of which seventy-two were Shermans or Grants and the rest Crusaders, but by this stage of the battle a number of the Shermans in both 9th Armoured Brigade and 1st Armoured Division were very much ‘mechanically shaky’. This factor and problems with minefields in practice reduced Currie’s tank strength at the time of his attack to ninety-four. Worse still, though the advance had been planned for 0545 on 2 November, one of Currie’s regiments, the Warwickshire Yeomanry, had been so delayed by its difficulties that it did not reach the start-line on time. Currie was urged to proceed with his remaining regiments, the 3rd Hussars and the Wiltshire Yeomanry, but, understandably anxious to have his full strength available for such an important operation, he postponed the assault for half-an-hour – much to Freyberg’s regret.

It was a fatal delay. Although at first all went well and some 300 prisoners were taken, daylight found 9th Armoured, in the words of Alexander’s Official Despatch, ‘on the muzzles of the powerful screen of anti-tank guns on the Rahman Track, instead of beyond it as had been planned’. The British tanks charged forward desperately but seventy of them were knocked out, though since the Allies held the battlefield many were later recovered; and 230 officers and men were killed or wounded. Yet their sacrifice had not been in vain. Some thirty-five of Rommel’s vital anti-tank guns had also been destroyed. The men of 9th Armoured says General Jackson, ‘had fractured Rommel’s containing screen, though they did not break it’.

In the confusion, two squadrons of the Royal Dragoons’ armoured cars had managed to slip out of the southern flank of the new salient, roaming about far behind the enemy lines causing havoc among his remaining ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles. Fisher’s 2nd Armoured Brigade was also in action by 0800, but it could scarcely be expected to break out since the main enemy defences were still intact and the Germans were already feverishly bringing up 88s to strengthen them. Fortunately Rommel, obsessed with a belief that the major Allied effort would be made in the north, thought at first that SUPERCHARGE must be a subsidiary movement to divert his attention. Not until dawn on 2 November did he realize the true situation and order von Thoma to counter-attack with every German and Italian tank that he could muster, and it was 1100 before von Thoma was able to oblige.

By that time Eighth Army was ready for him. For two hours, 21st Panzer from the north, 15th Panzer and Littorio supported by Trieste from the west, battered away at the salient, but as at Alam Halfa they were held off by British tanks sited in good defensive positions, backed by artillery and anti-tank guns. 2nd Armoured Brigade bore the brunt of this fighting but Custance’s 8th Armoured Brigade also played its part as it came up on Fisher’s left flank. ‘The British armour,’ records Lucas Phillips, ‘fought with skill, courage and excellent leadership at all levels, brilliantly supported by “the terrible British artillery”.’ Brilliantly supported also by the Desert Air Force. The light bombers made seven attacks on the enemy and two Stuka raids were so disrupted by the Hurricanes of Nos. 33 and 238 and of Nos. 213 and 1 South African Squadrons respectively that they dropped their bombs on their own troops.

The integration of all arms of Eighth Army was complete and the result is summarized by Lucas Phillips as ‘the hammering of the panzers’. 1st Armoured Division lost only 14 tanks, though 40 more proved ‘mechanically shaky’, but the Germans lost 70 and the Italians 37. Littorio, in Rommel’s own words, was ‘practically wiped out’, and 15th Panzer was in little better state. And meanwhile Montgomery had determined once more to vary the direction of his thrust so as to break out to the south of his new salient. At 1815, 152nd Brigade attacked ‘Skinflint’, an area of high ground about a mile to the south-west, under a heavy artillery barrage, duly taking its objective together with 100 prisoners from Trieste. The supporting 50th Royal Tanks lost four Valentines but the infantry had no casualties at all. Moreover the Italians were so shaken that they now surrendered the ‘Snipe’ strongpoint with sixty more prisoners before it could be attacked – a sad contrast to the previous Eighth Army defence of that famous position.

Though during the night of 2nd/3rd November, a push westward by 7th Motor Brigade was thrown back with considerable losses, Rommel had at last become convinced that he could not hold his ground for much longer. It was a realization that had dire implications for his Italian infantry formations. A grim background to the loss of Rommel’s troops on the ground had been provided by the loss of his supply-ships at sea: the tanker Proserpina and the ammunition-ship Tergestea on 26 October, the tanker Louisiana on the 28th, the ammunition-ship Tripolino on 1 November. Yet for Rommel’s Italians the shortage of petrol was largely irrelevant. Their problem was not that they had no petrol but that they had no vehicles into which it could be put.


Eighth Army’s Greatest Victories - Adrian Turner

Accordingly Rommel on the morning of 3 November, ordered his non-motorized units to begin their long march back to Fuka, some 60 miles to the west. He ordered Stuka raids to cover their retreat but the first of these at dawn was broken up by the Hurricanes of Nos 33 and 238 Squadrons. At about 1230, an even bigger raid came in, heavily escorted by 109s, but when the Hurricanes of No. 80 Squadron engaged the Stukas, the 109s ignored them, preferring to attack the Hurricanes of No. 127 Squadron while these were at a disadvantage covering No. 80. They shot down no fewer than six Hurricanes but while they were so occupied, No. 80 Squadron ripped into the dive-bombers without interference – enemy records confirm that they destroyed nine of these for the loss of one of their own machines which force-landed.

On the ground Rommel directed his mobile forces, reinforced by the bulk of Ariete which he had brought up to the battle-zone on the previous evening from its futile sojourn in the south, to hold firm for as long as possible while his infantrymen made good their withdrawal. So well did they perform their task that when 153rd Brigade from 51st Highland Division tried to move forward from ‘Skinflint’ to the Rahman Track some two miles south of Tell el Aqqaqir at 1745, the result was a tragic failure. An air and artillery bombardment had been arranged, only to be cancelled on the pleas of Briggs who wrongly believed that 8th Armoured Brigade had already advanced into this area. As a result, the attack met heavy resistance and was halted with the loss of ninety-four infantry casualties and twenty Valentines of the supporting 8th Royal Tanks destroyed or crippled.

In the meantime at 1530, a signal had arrived from Hitler ordering Rommel ‘to stand fast, yield not a yard of ground and throw every gun and every man into the battle’, and to show his troops ‘no other road than that to victory or death’. Cavallero forwarded a similar message from Mussolini shortly afterwards.

Rommel was dismayed by these instructions, but his later claims that they prevented his army from making an orderly retirement cannot possibly be accepted. Field Marshal Carver declares bluntly that ‘it is difficult to see’ that Hitler’s order ‘made much difference, as the attempt to put it into effect does not appear to have succeeded, even if it were seriously made … It appears that both in the north and in the south the Panzerarmee did in fact continue to withdraw.’ Indeed it was scarcely relevant whether the retreat was halted or not so far as the non-motorized Italians were concerned because even had the order from Hitler not arrived, they could never have made good their escape unless the units still in the front line had been able to hold this for a good deal longer than in fact proved to be the case.

Because, ironically enough, after he had received his Führer’s signal, Rommel changed the previous orders to his mobile troops to hold their present positions. Instead, as night fell on 3 November, he withdrew his Afrika Korps some six miles to the north-west of Tell el Aqqaqir, while Ariete, Trieste and Trento formed up on von Thoma’s right and 90th Light fell back to take station on his left. He thus surrendered his line of defences which for so long had defied all efforts to break it. That night, Montgomery launched his last attacks through the southern flank of his salient. At 0645 on 4 November, 154th Brigade, supported by powerful artillery fire, captured Tell el Aqqaqir virtually without resistance. Further south, Brigadier Russell’s 5th Indian Brigade from 4th Indian Division, moving out from ‘Skinflint’, successfully reached the Rahman Track a full four miles south of the Tell by 0900, taking 350 prisoners and numerous anti-tank guns on the way.

Through the gaps thus torn in the enemy’s defences poured 1st, 7th and 10th Armoured Divisions, the last-named having regained command of 8th Armoured Brigade. The Trieste and Trento Divisions, already badly mauled, were finally shattered. At about 1300, 22nd Armoured Brigade, passing through Russell’s position, fell on Ariete which fought bravely all afternoon but by nightfall had been all but wiped out, 450 prisoners being taken, while Roberts had lost just one Stuart tank and three men wounded. And by about 1300 also, Fisher’s 2nd Armoured Brigade had thrown back the Afrika Korps and 90th Light as these attempted, valiantly but in vain, to hold Rommel’s new line. Von Thoma’s own command tank was knocked out and he was taken prisoner by Captain Grant Singer commanding the 10th Hussars Reconnaissance Troop. That evening he dined with Montgomery, rather touchingly inviting his conqueror to come and visit him in Germany when the war was over.

By 1730, regardless of Hitler’s orders and Rommel’s intentions, Panzerarmee Afrika was in full flight. As at Alam Halfa, there was enough petrol to enable the mobile units to escape, and in the south the Ramcke Parachute Brigade which did have transport was also able to get clear, but for the Italian divisions which did not, the Pavia, Brescia, Bologna, Folgore, there was no option but to surrender. Eight Italian generals followed von Thoma into captivity. ‘Ring out the bells!’ Alexander signalled to Churchill.

The battle, by an uncanny quirk of fate, had lasted for exactly the twelve days that Montgomery had prophesied. Nonetheless it must never be forgotten that it was, in the words of Lucas Phillips, ‘a soldier’s battle and not merely a general’s exercise’, which ‘owed its triumph’ to a number of different factors: ‘to the guts and fighting spirit of Montgomery’s soldiers, to his own high mastery in the technique of the most unforgiving of all professions, to the sustained support of the Allied pilots in the air, and to the repeated mistakes, which his adversary so shrewdly invited him to make, of Erwin Rommel’.

More sadly, Montgomery had also predicted the price paid for the triumph: over 13,500 casualties, which was less than 8 per cent of the forces involved, but of which about 4,000 were fatal casualties. The Indians and Allied units such as the Fighting French together suffered 4 per cent of the losses, the South Africans 6 per cent, the New Zealanders 10 per cent, the Australians 22 per cent, the British 58 per cent. The airmen lost ninety-seven machines, rather more than their Axis opponents whose losses were eighty-four. Eighth Army also lost 100 guns, but although it has been widely stated that 500 tanks were destroyed, most of these, having suffered only minor damage to tracks or suspension in the minefields, were quickly back in action. Over 300 were repaired while the battle was still in progress and total losses were only 150.

‘The enemy losses,’ as even the sober Official History reports, ‘were tremendous, the German formations being reduced to skeletons and the Italian broken to bits.’ Eighth Army took well over 30,000 prisoners, 10,700 of them German. It was officially calculated that 10,000 Axis troops had been killed and 15,000 wounded, but these may be overestimates; Field Marshal Carver considers it ‘probable’ that about 20,000 were killed or wounded. Rommel had also lost over 1,000 guns and 450 tanks, while the Italians abandoned seventy-five more during the retreat. Most of the Axis soldiers who did escape had lost their fighting equipment.

The victory had immense consequences throughout the world, not least in Russia, for when on 22 November, a counter-offensive trapped the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, Hitler refused to allow it to cut its way out as it almost certainly could have done any time during the following week, because he was not prepared to countenance a further withdrawal so soon after the one in North Africa. For Britain in general, as for Eighth Army in particular, the extent of the triumph after so many partial or unfulfilled successes was exhilarating. The relief as well as the excitement felt was, as so often, summed up best by Churchill: ‘We have a new experience. We have victory – a remarkable and definite victory. The bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers, and warmed and cheered all our hearts.’


Eighth Army’s Greatest Victories - Adrian Turner

The Reconquest of Egypt

At Alam Halfa, Eighth Army had conquered its own doubts and fears and a powerful enemy advance. At Alamein, it had conquered formidable enemy defences. From now onwards its conquests would be of enemy or enemy-occupied territory, though they would also be punctuated by the ‘bright gleams’ of further victories.

This phase of Eighth Army’s achievements began disappointingly with the reconquest of Axis-occupied Egypt. ‘Disappointingly’ because although the reconquest was duly achieved, it was not accompanied, as had been hoped, by the final destruction of Panzerarmee Afrika. So much virulent criticism has been hurled against Eighth Army as a result, that it seems necessary to begin a study of the pursuit from El Alamein by calling for a sense of proportion. The RAF Official History puts the matter into admirable if unintentional perspective by remarking in successive sentences that this advance ‘did not quite satisfy our most ardent desires. It swept across the breadth of Africa.’ The veterans of previous campaigns would have given much to have suffered such a ‘disappointment’ earlier.

Because the Battle of El Alamein had been so hard fought for so long, the attention of Eighth Army’s leaders had become concentrated more and more on how to win it and less and less on what action to take if and when it was won – and understandably so. Briggs for instance had urged towards the end of the fighting that the ammunition which his supporting vehicles carried – and which Briggs used to such good effect on 2 November, in ‘hammering’ the panzers – should be replaced by extra fuel for a long pursuit. Much criticism has been aimed at Montgomery for not complying with this suggestion. Yet it should be remembered that though 8th Armoured Brigade had temporarily been added to 2nd Armoured Brigade in his 1st Armoured Division, Briggs could not break through Rommel’s last line of defences on 2 or 3 November, only succeeded in passing this after Rommel had ordered a withdrawal, and then still spent much of the 4th in finally defeating the Afrika Korps. In the circumstances, it seems that Montgomery was at least prudent to refuse to follow the example of his predecessors who had been so obsessed with the need to pursue a beaten foe that they had neglected to beat him in the first place.

In addition, the pressures on Eighth Army had been immense. ‘A successful pursuit after a great battle of attrition is seldom possible,’ notes General Jackson understandingly. ‘Montgomery had made all his arrangements to exploit his victory which he saw was coming 48 hours earlier, but Eighth Army found itself nearer exhaustion than it realized when the final Axis collapse came. Its staff work was not up to the moment due to the cumulative fatigue and mental stress of the last 12 days.’

How great was the exhaustion and stress can be seen from the fact that many of Eighth Army’s officers were coming close to the limits of endurance. Lucas Phillips relates that Major General Wimberley, GOC of 51st Highland Division for one was ‘beginning to be mentally and physically worn out’, while his chief gunner, Brigadier Elliott was ‘by now utterly exhausted’. On 6 November, Brigadier Fisher who had led 2nd Armoured Brigade in so many crucial encounters during the battle had to hand over his command as a result of illness. By the end of the month, de Guingand, who at the battle’s close had been awarded an immediate DSO, broke down and had to be flown back to hospital in Cairo.

It was therefore desirable that the pursuit be conducted if possible with fresh troops, but this was not an easy matter to arrange after a twelve-day battle during which Montgomery had deliberately tried to keep his opponents under continuous pressure rather than allow them intervals of rest as had happened in July. Moreover Eighth Army had already carried out a major reorganization so as to provide the fresh troops needed for SUPERCHARGE. De Guingand had tried to create a reserve force, to be commanded by Major General Gairdner, specifically for a pursuit, but, inevitably perhaps, the units allocated to this were thrown into the task of winning the battle first. Major General Tuker, commanding 4th Indian Division, whose 5th Brigade had made the final advance to the Rahman Track, had urged that his two remaining brigades which had played only minor roles in the battle so far, should be used to pursue. He was far from pleased when his ideas were not followed.

Yet Tuker’s brigades suffered from two disadvantages. They were infantry brigades which were short of transport vehicles and they were well back behind the minefields of the ‘Devil’s Gardens’. Accordingly Montgomery, as the Official History declares, ‘had decided to exploit with the mobile formations that were already well forward – the X Corps and the New Zealand Division’, the latter being a motorized division which had originally been envisaged as part of X Corps. ‘This,’ the Official History continues, ‘was the quickest thing he [Montgomery] could have done.’

Furthermore some at least of the mobile formations were fresh. 7th Armoured Division had been brought forward from Army Reserve. The New Zealand Division had taken part in SUPERCHARGE but it will be recalled that it had there employed two brigades allocated to it from outside. Freyberg was now commanding 6th New Zealand Brigade which had played only a supporting role in SUPERCHARGE, and 5th New Zealand Brigade which, apart from 28th Maori Battalion, had taken no part in the attack at all; while prior to SUPERCHARGE, both brigades had enjoyed a welcome period of rest. 9th Armoured Brigade which was still under Freyberg was certainly not fresh, but he had been reinforced by another new reserve formation, Roddick’s 4th Light Armoured Brigade.

So in practice the pursuing force did contain units which were at least less exhausted than most of those in Eighth Army, and considering all that had gone before this was a feat of organization reflecting the greatest credit on Montgomery and his staff – though it is one that seems never to have been acknowledged. The units brought up from reserve had carried out their task splendidly on 4 November. 7th Armoured Division, as already seen, had annihilated an enemy armoured division without losing a man and at the cost of one Stuart tank. Unfortunately it had been the Italian Ariete, not one of the German divisions. Roddick had also done well, destroying eleven guns and taking 300 prisoners – again, however, all Italian.

It seemed that 5 November might see the final destruction of the German forces also, but this was not to be. Liddell Hart attributes this to Eighth Army’s ‘old faults of caution, hesitation, slow motion, and narrow manoeuvre’. To blame misleading Intelligence, poor communications, human nature and the accidents of geography appears far less dramatic – but is far more fair.

The basic cause of Eighth Army’s failure to round up the remains of Panzerarmee Afrika lay with the ‘Ultra’ Intelligence – surprising as this might appear at first glance. But then it must be appreciated that while ‘Ultra’ was frequently valuable and occasionally invaluable, it in no way solved all Eighth Army’s problems. Indeed had it done so, Eighth Army’s ‘golden pages’ would have begun much earlier and under a different regime.

Brigadier Sir Edgar Williams certainly has no illusions as to ‘Ultra’s’ strengths and weaknesses. He calls it ‘a dazzling new experience’, but he is never so dazzled as to be blind to its defects. ‘Military Intelligence,’ he declares, ‘is not only spasmodic, it is always out of date: there is a built-in time-lag.’ This was especially so in the case of ‘Ultra’. The enemy signal had to be detected – and the Germans regularly changed their radio frequencies. Then it had to be deciphered and translated. Then any problems arising from gaps in the message caused by poor conditions or by errors in deciphering or in translation had to be rectified. Finally the message had to be re-encoded, and only then could it be radioed to the appropriate British Intelligence officer in the field.

As a result, some ‘Ultra’ interceptions took as long as three days to reach the battlefield. Even when they arrived on the day after the Germans had originally transmitted them, as many did, this was still too late to be of value when fighting was in progress and tactical moves had to be made immediately in response to a rapidly-changing situation. Thus Ronald Lewin, in his book Ultra Goes to War: The Secret Story, openly admits that during Alamein ‘all the key Intelligence people … agree that ‘Ultra’ had little direct effect.’

Lewin does claim, however, that ‘Ultra’ could have had a great effect at the conclusion of the encounter. ‘The evidence about “Ultra’s” deciphering of the Rommel-Hitler exchanges,’ he declares, ‘must puzzle still further those military critics who, ever since the Second World War, have been unable to understand why Montgomery failed to cut off and destroy Rommel’s army after Alamein.’ On the contrary, an examination of the signals which were revealed to Montgomery makes it very easy to understand why he failed to cut off and destroy Rommel’s army: he was given singularly misleading information by ‘Ultra’.

As a matter of interest, Montgomery did not know the full story of ‘the Rommel-Hitler exchanges’. Hitler’s ‘victory or death’ signal for instance was, it appears, advised only to Alexander and then not until the afternoon of 4 November 1942. Even if it had reached Montgomery as well, this ‘built-in time-lag’, so inevitable with ‘Ultra’, would have robbed it of any importance. By the afternoon of 4 November 1942, Eighth Army had finally broken its foes’ resistance and what Hitler had or had not ordered was quite irrelevant.

Far more relevant were two messages sent by Rommel on 2 November, and revealed to Eighth Army on the 3rd. In the more dramatic of these, Rommel declared that ‘the strength of the Army is exhausted’; that the escape of his non-motorized units was highly unlikely as they lacked the necessary vehicles and ‘a large part of these formations will probably fall into the hands of the enemy who is fully motorized’; that even his mobile troops were ‘so closely involved in the battle that only elements will be able to disengage’; and that therefore he expected ‘the gradual destruction of the Army’.

Yet during 3 November, all advances by infantry or armour alike were checked and it was clear that, despite its exhaustion, Panzerarmee Afrika was going to resist for as long as possible if only to give its non-motorized units a chance of making good their retirement. Montgomery therefore rightly concentrated on terminating that resistance. By the afternoon of the 4th, Eighth Army had at last gained its victory, thereby dooming the Italian divisions, but it was now that the information from ‘Ultra’ prevented the complete obliteration of the remnants of the German formations as well.

In the signal just quoted, Rommel made the seemingly significant comment that ‘the shortage of fuel will not allow of a withdrawal to any great distance.’ Then when the second signal of 2 November also reached Eighth Army on the following day, it revealed that Rommel proposed to retire fighting ‘step by step’ – a decision which appeared inevitable in these circumstances.

So when on 4 November, a further ‘Ultra’ report was received, indicating that Rommel intended ‘to gain some time at the next intermediate position El Daba’, before finally retiring to Fuka a further 30 miles to the west, this seemed entirely in accordance with – indeed confirmation of – the information ‘Ultra’ had previously given. Montgomery therefore, says Nigel Hamilton in his biography, proposed to attack the remaining Axis forces at El Daba immediately, at the moment ‘when the enemy was acknowledging defeat, when Axis communications were breaking down’, and perhaps even more important before the Axis commanders could grip the situation so as to bring it under some sort of control.

Montgomery’s plan called for Freyberg’s men, including 4th Light Armoured Brigade, to move ‘immediately to Fuka in order to block the enemy’s withdrawal to the west’, a role for which as the Official History notes approvingly, ‘the motorized New Zealand Division was an obvious choice’. While Freyberg prevented further retreat, Lumsden, in Hamilton’s rather dramatic words, ‘was to use his three armoured divisions’ – 1st, 7th and 10th – ‘to smash Rommel’s remaining armoured and motorized units up against the sea’. This, as Hamilton rightly points out, was ‘a far cry from the “cautiousness” which critics have ascribed’ to the Eighth Army Commander, and the only trouble was that the armoured divisions were directed on the wrong target, because in reality the ‘Ultra’ predictions were simply incorrect.

For this, Montgomery cannot fairly be faulted, but he did at this time make another decision which turned out to be very unwise and for which, as Hamilton declares, he ‘must bear the blame’. During both Alam Halfa and Alamein, Montgomery had maintained a very tight control over his army, but now, believing that ‘the more fluid the fighting, the greater should be the degree of decentralization’, he did not personally assume ‘direct command of the pursuit’. The lesson ‘would not be lost on Montgomery’ for the future.

Montgomery’s decision appears the more strange in that he had in practice entrusted the pursuit to Lumsden, although that officer’s performance during Alamein had not met with his approval. It seems, however, that he felt Lumsden would prove much more effective in a mobile encounter – and with some reason. Horrocks for example describes Lumsden as ‘a cavalry officer and a well-known amateur rider before the war’, who ‘had all the qualities required in a first-class steeplechase jockey, physical fitness, nerve, and the capacity to make up his mind in a split second’. Such a man must have seemed ideally suited to lead the chase of the beaten Axis soldiers and it should be noted in fairness to him that Major Sir William Mather, who was on Montgomery’s staff and had been detailed to act as a liaison officer with 10th Corps, would later tell Nigel Hamilton that Lumsden’s ‘main aim was to advance as quickly as possible – we had them on the run, his idea was to keep them on the run – and demolish them’.

Unhappily some of Lumsden’s subordinates and even Freyberg would not prove active in carrying out his, and Montgomery’s, wishes. The cause of this was in part psychological. As Field Marshal Carver notes, the exhilaration that marked the break-out from Alamein was ‘tempered by the feeling that having miraculously survived the ever-present dangers of the battle among the minefields, it would be folly to fling away one’s life too recklessly when victory was at hand’. When it is remembered that a man in a burning tank faced a particularly horrible death and that for their part the New Zealanders had not forgotten how often their comrades had been left ‘naked before an armoured attack’ during the days of Auchinleck’s leadership, it is difficult to blame the pursuing forces too severely for being prudent.

Moreover the pursuers were hampered by the facts of geography. Much of Eighth Army was still on the wrong side of the ‘Devil’s Gardens’ making its slow and painful way through the minefields. Those so handicapped included part of Freyberg’s forces, notably 6th New Zealand Brigade, and most of the armoured divisions’ supply echelons. Kippenberger remarks with commendable restraint that ‘it was all most confused and difficult’; Horrocks considers that it was a ‘wonder’ that these forces ‘ever joined up at all’; even the staid Official History describes the problems as ‘appalling’. Nor were the pursuers’ difficulties over once the minefields had been passed. The night of 4th/5th November was, says Horrocks, ‘very dark’, which made ‘cross-country movement in the desert a slow and painful business, particularly for tired troops’.

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Eighth Army’s Greatest Victories - Adrian Turner

These problems would wreck Eighth Army’s plans. 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions were to advance directly on El Daba where it was thought the remnants of Panzerarmee Afrika would be making their stand, but they needed to reorganize after their encounters with the Afrika Korps and Ariete respectively; they were therefore halted for the night. As far as the forces intended to cut off Rommel’s retreat from El Daba were concerned, however, the instructions were very different. Freyberg was ordered to set out for Fuka at 2300 on the 4th, while 10th Armoured Division which was stationed on the left flank of 10th Corps was directed on Galal midway between El Daba and Fuka, and was urged to move ‘all night’ to make sure it reached its objective in time.

Sadly neither 2nd New Zealand nor 10th Armoured Divisions was able to obey. Freyberg found it so difficult to collect his scattered forces during the hours of darkness that he repeatedly postponed his advance, ultimately to 0530 on 5 November – and then in reality only set off half-an-hour later. In 10th Armoured Division, the tanks of Custance’s 8th Armoured Brigade did begin their advance at 1930 on the 4th. By then, though, it was pitch-dark and, explains Field Marshal Carver, ‘so great was the confusion and difficulty caused by this, the first attempt of most of them at a night move over unreconnoitred desert that he [Custance] halted after an hour and decided not to try again until it was light’. As a result we learn from Montgomery’s Memoirs, ‘the pursuit proper began on the 5th November’. If only it could have begun, as was intended, on the evening of the 4th.

The situation was made worse by one further disadvantage. In the past there had been numerous occasions when faulty communications had added to Eighth Army’s problems. They now did so again, being in no way helped by Montgomery having unwisely left Freyberg under 30th Corps rather than under Lumsden, to whose command he was only transferred in the afternoon of the 5th. In consequence neither Montgomery nor Lumsden knew that Gatehouse and Freyberg were not moving – indeed as late as midday on the 5th, the former would mistakenly report to Alexander that the ‘progress of armoured divisions’ had ‘continued all night’ – while 10th Corps at this time was not even aware of the exact locations of its 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions.

It was this lack of communication that finally robbed Eighth Army of complete triumph. By 2240 on the 4th, its Intelligence staff had already learned that Rommel, shaken by the extent of his losses, did not intend to fight a delaying action at El Daba after all but to retire all the way to Fuka. By 0245 next morning, this was confirmed by the RAF Wellingtons and Fleet Air Arm Albacores attacking the coast road, which, they reported, was jammed with vehicles all the way from El Daba to Fuka. Attempts were therefore made to redirect the main attack towards Fuka, but the news that he would face the bulk of the enemy forces there made Freyberg the more determined to wait until his strength had been concentrated before he set out. As for the divisions of 10th Corps, it seems that Lumsden was never able to contact 1st or 7th Armoured to change their original orders, while, although at 0535 he signalled to Gatehouse that 8th Armoured Brigade should ‘take a wider sweep’ so as to reach Fuka, the message was apparently misunderstood, for Gatehouse continued to make Galal his objective and only after he had reached it did he intend to turn towards Fuka.

As a result, both 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions missed their prey altogether. The former began its advance at 0730 on the 5th, but saw no action until 0900, by which time it was some three miles south-east of El Daba. Even then the opposition was provided only by a lone 88mm, one shell tragically killing Captain Grant Singer who only the day before had accepted the surrender of von Thoma. The division pressed forward, cutting the coast road west of El Daba which was then taken by 7th Motor Brigade with the miserable haul of 150 prisoners. 7th Armoured Division advancing on 1st Armoured’s left, did not even reach the coast road, Harding halting some five miles south of it when he realized that the main body of the enemy had already escaped.

The other Allied forces at least had more substantial rewards for their trouble. Freyberg’s men moved off at 0600, and 4th Light Armoured Brigade began the day well by attacking an enemy column, destroying six German tanks and taking a number of prisoners. By noon, however, Freyberg’s advance had been halted by a minefield, covered by artillery fire, and it took three hours before his first troops could pass through it. Maddeningly enough, it was later discovered that the minefield was a dummy one, and as if that was not sufficiently exasperating, a dummy one laid by Eighth Army – apparently by the South Africans – during the retreat to Alamein in June.

Gatehouse’s 10th Armoured Division also began its advance at 0600, reaching Galal without opposition. The German troops had already escaped the trap, but at midday, 8th Armoured Brigade encountered the remains of the Italian armour. Liddell Hart underrates the British effort by stating that the destruction of the enemy tanks was achieved only because they ‘had run out of fuel’. Field Marshal Carver by contrast makes it clear that the Italians did not run out of anything – they ‘ran headlong into the devastating fire of the whole brigade’. By about 1230, Custance’s men, backed by the 133rd Motorized Infantry Brigade, had destroyed twenty-eight Italian tanks, four German Mark IIIs, one Mark II and 100 lorries, and had taken 1,000 prisoners. The remaining enemy vehicles, including another eleven tanks, tried to break away to the south but were abandoned later. This was, as Carver relates, ‘a most satisfactory haul’ and a useful consolation prize for the failure to catch the Germans.

Unhappily it took some time for 10th Armoured Division to reorganize. Still more unhappily Gatehouse then ordered 133rd Brigade eastward to mop up stragglers, and though 8th Armoured Brigade did eventually move towards Fuka, it halted for the night at 2000, still well short of its objective.

Gatehouse, in fact, really does seem to have deserved the accusation of being over-hesitant. Nigel Hamilton quotes General Sir Sidney Kirkman, who had become Eighth Army’s Commander, Royal Artillery in place of the hapless Martin, as declaring that: ‘There was no desire to go on among Gatehouse and his staff.’ Yet Kirkman does add understandingy that 10th Armoured Division had ‘had a bad time’ at Alamein and no doubt its attitude resulted from its experiences during that battle.

Furthermore the ‘bad time’ had taken more than one form. It will be remembered that the supporting vehicles of 8th Armoured Brigade had suffered heavy losses from air attack on the night of 24th/25th October. The sight of the charred bodies of the drivers and their mates still upright in their cabs had left an indelible impression. Perhaps therefore Gatehouse cannot be blamed too harshly for insisting on ‘full fighter cover’ for his advance. Equally there can be no doubt that Montgomery was more far-sighted when he overruled this decision, stating: ‘RAF fighter cover can be dispensed with and all fighters used against the enemy.’ By that time, though, it was already early afternoon.

The Desert Air Force has also been the subject of criticism over its failure to check or at least inflict more damage on the retreating Axis forces. It is true that the Allied airmen who had caused such destruction among the enemy ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles in the cramped conditions of Alam Halfa and Alamein proved much less successful when attacking fleeing transports on an open road. It should be remembered, however, that they, like the soldiers, were by now exhausted after twelve days of intensive action; they were to be seen to much greater advantage in the near future when they had had a chance to recover. The need to provide fighter protection for Gatehouse also restricted their activities. Yet even as it was, the Bostons, Baltimores and Hurribombers delivered a number of successful attacks, particularly in the afternoon when they could be accompanied by an escort, and Rommel, whose Headquarters was twice hit, refers to the Allied air attacks – admittedly with some exaggeration – as ‘uninterrupted and very heavy’.

In any event by the time Montgomery overruled Gatehouse’s request, it had already become clear that Rommel’s remaining German troops were not going to be trapped east of Fuka and the position of their pursuers made it more difficult for them to be trapped west of Fuka either. Many of Montgomery’s tank commanders have since stated that he should not have concentrated all his armoured divisions on his attempt to crush his enemy, but should have sent one of them to provide a final blocking-force at Mersa Matruh or Sollum. Ironically Montgomery might well have done this if only he had not been so eager to complete the destruction of his foes – in other words if only he had really been as cautious a commander as his more vocal critics claim.

Yet when the actual performance of the armoured divisions is taken into account, it may be permissible to doubt whether such an action would really have been successful in any case. It is interesting to learn that Field Marshal Carver considers that whatever had been done it is most unlikely that Rommel would have been caught unless he had stopped to fight it out, which he had no intention of doing: ‘The man who wants to get away in the desert, and has the vehicles to do so, can usually evade his pursuer, certainly if he is as determined and swift in action and decision as Rommel was.’

In theory the decisions now taken by Montgomery and contained in orders issued by Lumsden at 1340 on 5 November, seemed well suited to corner Rommel west of Fuka. Gatehouse was to put pressure on Fuka from the east, while Freyberg, who was now to come under Lumsden’s command, did the same from the south; but Freyberg was to relinquish control of 4th Light Armoured Brigade so that Roddick could speed on to ‘Charing Cross’, a road junction just south-west of Mersa Matruh where the coast road climbed an escarpment. Briggs was to take his 1st Armoured Division on a wide movement through the desert to Bir Khalda some 40 miles southeast of ‘Charing Cross’ and about 70 miles from El Daba, travelling all night if necessary so as to be ready to join in the advance on ‘Charing Cross’ at dawn on 6 November. And finally Harding’s 7th Armoured Division would carry out a narrower sweep to capture the landing-grounds near Sidi Haneish about midway between Fuka and Matruh; then head northward for the coast road, again with the aim of ‘smashing’ Rommel’s forces ‘up against the sea’.

Yet as so often, practice proved much less satisfactory than theory. Poor communications caused a misunderstanding between Lumsden and Freyberg, which resulted in the latter retaining Roddick under his command and refraining from attacking Fuka in the belief that he was to move on to Sidi Haneish next day – information which Lumsden had intended to be only a statement of possible future policy. Gatehouse, as mentioned earlier, made no progress towards Fuka either and as a result Rommel was not pinned down in his positions there. By 1545, he had already decided to retreat to Matruh. His retirement could not be put into effect until 2300, and was harassed through the night by Wellingtons, Halifaxes and No. 73 Squadron’s night-fighter Hurricanes, but he had long disappeared when Gatehouse finally entered Fuka at midday on the 6th, though 10th Armoured Division did add another 300 Italian prisoners to Eighth Army’s ever-growing list.

Moreover geography had again given Rommel one great advantage. ‘The unbroken coast road,’ reports General Jackson, ‘lay behind him, along which his mobile troops could make better progress, covered by rearguards, than the British pursuers who had to hook southwards into the desert to outflank his successive delaying positions.’ ‘Rommel’s forces had a main road down which to withdraw,’ agrees General Fraser, ‘and it would have needed great energy and more than a little luck to move across desert with enough speed to forestall.’

And in practice, Eighth Army was far from lucky. 7th Armoured Division duly set out on its outflanking mission, though its 131st Motorized Infantry Brigade was now trailing some way behind 22nd Armoured Brigade. At about 1500 on 5 November, Roberts encountered the dummy minefield that had so hampered Freyberg and it was about 1800 before his tanks could make their way through it. An hour later, 22nd Armoured was forced to halt entirely. Its tanks were now desperately short of petrol and its supply echelons were still far to the east.

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Eighth Army’s Greatest Victories - Adrian Turner

Meanwhile 1st Armoured Division’s move had also been delayed by the need to refuel. It did not start off until 1800 on the 5th, but it then pressed on through the night. Unfortunately the difficulties of having to move through the desert instead of down a main road soon became all too apparent. The darkness was described as ‘intense’, the ‘going’ was very bad, 7th Motor Brigade fell well behind 2nd Armoured Brigade’s tanks and the supporting supply units in particular got hopelessly bogged down in soft sand. As a crowning misfortune, the Shermans revealed another defect which had been concealed by the static nature of the fighting at Alamein: in these difficult conditions they consumed what the Official History calls ‘fantastic quantities of fuel’. In consequence at about 0900 on 6 November, 2nd Armoured came to a halt still some 15 miles east of Bir Khalda, and the only Eighth Army units to reach ‘Charing Cross’ were the valiant South African armoured cars, which were able to secure large numbers of prisoners but could scarcely be expected to block the retreat of Rommel’s armoured and motorized divisions on their own.

If 4 November 1942 was, in the words of General Fraser, ‘the best moment experienced by the British Army since another November day long ago in 1918’, it might be thought from some of the judgements that have been passed, that 5 November 1942 was the British Army’s worst day since that time. Certainly it was then that the best chance of rounding up the beaten remnants of Rommel’s armoured forces slipped away. Yet this disappointment must not be allowed to mask the fact that on 5 November, the men of Eighth Army inflicted very heavy casualties on their foes, including the final destruction of the Italian armour. They also caused losses to the Axis air forces, for during the day they occupied Landing Grounds 105 and 106, capturing nine brand new Messerschmitt Bf 109s together with some fifty other machines of various types which were damaged but could have been repaired had the enemy only been given a little more time to do so. Moreover their own losses had been minimal. Their predecessors under an earlier regime would have been delighted to have enjoyed a few days as good as 5 November.

Even Rommel’s escape on this day was brought about only by a headlong retreat which Eighth Army forced him to execute prematurely and which therefore completed their triumph of the day before. In Rommel’s own words, he had hoped to hold Fuka ‘long enough for the Italian and German infantry to catch up’. When Eighth Army’s pressure forced him out of Fuka late on 5 November, his unmotorized units had no chance of doing anything other than surrender to 13th Corps. It is almost amusing to read the British accounts of Eighth Army’s slowness and caution, and then to find Paul Carell (who was a committed National Socialist Party member during war and served in Goebbels Propaganda Ministry and after the war wrote several books from increasingly biased German persperctive) for instance, lamenting that:

“Montgomery was pressing on with unusual speed, chasing Rommel’s troops towards Fuka. His men were marching on a parallel course to the Germans, giving them no time to reorganize or dig in for a defence – not even in Fuka. The British High Command seemed to be fully aware of the disastrous position in which Rommel found himself… In any case the boldness of the British pursuit was conspicuous.”

It was less conspicuous over the next couple of days, but again there were good reasons for this. 1st Armoured Division spent the morning of 6 November paralysed by lack of fuel. 7th Armoured Division was able to move on but also ran out of petrol again at about midday. It was hastily resupplied and at about 1500 encountered 21st Panzer Division, also immobilized for lack of fuel just south-west of Sidi Haneish. Roberts promptly engaged the enemy, destroying sixteen tanks and a number of guns.

‘At the same time as our gunners started firing,’ reports Brigadier Pip Roberts commander of 22nd Armored Brigade , 7th Armored Division , ‘so also did the skies – it started to rain and steadily got heavier and heavier.’ All day and all night the rain poured down. 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions were completely immobilized, as were Freyberg and Roddick who were now moving westward over the desert. The ground, says Roberts, ‘was like a quagmire’.The bottom fell out of the desert,’ records Kippenberger; his staff car, he tells us, ‘sank down to the axles’. For the rest of 6 November and the whole of the 7th, there was no possibility of an outflanking move cutting off Rommel.

It might have been thought that Eighth Army would have received some sympathy for this outrageous piece of ill-fortune – but not a bit of it. The rain has usually been dismissed as irrelevant, either on the grounds that the best opportunity of trapping Rommel had been missed on the 5th, which does not alter the fact that until the rain came there was still a good chance of trapping him on the 6th; or because it is said that with the advantage of the road behind him, Rommel could always have got back to ‘Charing Cross’ before the outflanking forces, which may well be true but ignores the fact that to do so he would have been compelled to retire at a considerably greater speed. Liddell Hart even remarks sourly that ‘if the pursuit had driven deeper through the desert’, to Sollum on the frontier for example, it would have been unlikely to have been affected by the weather, ‘for while rain is a likely risk in the coastal belt it is rare in the desert interior’. Apart, however, from Eighth Army having had no reason to anticipate a downpour – ‘local showers’ only had been forecast – the deeper the pursuers struck into the desert, the more time they would have taken and the more difficulties they would have experienced with the Shermans’ consumption of ‘fantastic quantities of fuel’ and – particularly in the case of 7th Armoured’s old tanks – with mechanical problems.

In fact, at the very least, in the words of the Official History: ‘Rain was not to blame for everything, but it did wash away an opportunity which had not been firmly grasped.’ Certainly it was Rommel’s own belief that the ‘torrential rain’ was highly advantageous to him; he even hoped he might now ‘hold on to Mersa Matruh for a few more days and thus gain time for some defences to be constructed’ in the frontier area.

With the troops in the desert trapped in rain and mud, Eighth Army’s only hope lay with 10th Armoured Division which, like the Germans, had the advantage of moving along the coast road. Unfortunately Gatehouse again failed to rise to the occasion. It was not until midday on 7 November, that he came up to the enemy positions at Matruh. His 133rd Motorized Infantry Brigade was then still well to the rear and his 8th Armoured Brigade was held off by remaining German anti-tank guns. Gatehouse’s lack of thrust had an unfortunate consequence. A premature report of the capture of Matruh had reached Eighth Army’s Headquarters, and Lieutenant Colonel Mainwaring, the head of the Operations staff, therefore set off to find a new site for the HQ in the Matruh area. At a place called Smugglers Cove, just to the east of the little town, Mainwaring ran into enemy troops and he and his entire party, which included Major Richard Carver, Montgomery’s stepson – but no relation to the future Field Marshal Lord Carver – were captured by a German patrol. (Richard Carver would escape from a prisoner of war camp and return to Eighth Army lines in Italy one year later in November 1943 and greeted by his stepfather Montgomery) Only when Montgomery personally arrived at the front in the late afternoon, appearing, it is reported, ‘anxious to get to Matruh’ – ‘presumably’ as Field Marshal Carver remarks, ‘a masterly understatement of his state of mind’ – was any further action taken. Then Lieutenant Colonel Smith-Dorrien delivered an infantry attack with his 1st Battalion, The Buffs, which was then part of 8th Armoured Brigade. This assault also was beaten back by reargusrd defense of German 90th Light Division.

General Kirkman, who was on the spot as well, would later be very indignant over Gatehouse’s apparent ‘lack of desire to do anything’, telling Nigel Hamilton that this was ‘a case where whatever Monty wanted, his battle was being ruined by Gatehouse … It shows how, however good an Army commander’s plan is, he can be let down.’ In retrospect, though, perhaps it would be fairer to attribute the failure not just to the fault of Gatehouse but also to the courage and determination of the Axis rearguard, the battered but undaunted German 90th Light Division.

At about 2100 on the evening of 7 November, Rommel began to withdraw once more, leaving Matruh for Sidi Barrani. At 0830 on the 8th Nıovember , 1st Armoured Division, having at last been able to resume its advance, assaulted Matruh from the west but found it empty. Montgomery made one final attempt to trap his fleeing foes by sending 7th Armoured Division on a long outflanking move towards the frontier, but this can never really have had much chance of success. Harding’s 7th Armored Division was plagued by mechanical breakdowns and shortages of petrol, and on 10 November, as a final touch, more heavy rain fell, bogging down his supply echelons. In practice, after 7 November, Rommel had made good his escape. Not that this brought him any comfort, for next day he received the news of the TORCH landings, a blow which completed the collapse of his confidence.

Also after 7 November, Montgomery took a direct and very tight control of his army, thereby impliedly admitting his error in not having taken personal control of the pursuit. Apart from Harding’s unsuccessful mission, he made no further effort to outflank the retreating enemy, but instead maintained an undramatic but relentless advance along the coast. Rommel had at first intended to fight a delaying action at Sidi Barrani, but by the evening of 9 November, his rearguard – the valiant 90th Light once more – had been forced to withdraw a day earlier than Rommel had wished in the face of pressure from 4th Light Armoured Brigade. Mussolini had sent Cavallero to visit Rommel with orders that the frontier area must be held ‘as long as possible’, but during the night of 10th/11th November, a brilliant attack by Kippenberger’s 5th New Zealand Brigade captured Halfaya Pass. German 90th Light Division made another fighting withdrawal, but Kippenberger’s men took made a well planned and executed night infantry attack and routed two Italian rearguard battalions and capturing 700 Italian prisoners.

By the early hours of the 11th November then, all Egypt had been reconquered by Eighth Army. On the same day, its leader became a full General and a Knight Commander of the Bath – in recognition, if we may borrow a phrase, of his own ability and achievements and those of all under his command.

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The Battle for North Africa, El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II - Glyn Harper


The last battle of El Alamein opened on the evening of October 23 with the largest artillery barrage fired by the British army in the war to date. It did not begin with the “concerted roar” of popular imagination.1 Instead, at 2030 hours, the first rounds in the offensive were fired by just one of 30 Corps’ medium guns. These exploded high in the air and were used to test the meteorological conditions that affected accurate shooting. The information was immediately sent to all of Eighth Army’s artillery batteries, who made their last-minute adjustments. Also fired before the main barrage commenced was the odd salvo from a single artillery battery. This was part of Eighth Army’s normal nightly routine of harassing fire and no change was made that might alert the enemy that something was afoot. At 2140 hours, five minutes after the leading infantry advanced from their start lines, Eighth Army’s artillery barrage opened right on time. The noise from nearly 900 guns was deafening and made the air vibrate. The flames from the muzzle flashes lit up a cloudless black night. The War Diary of the Australian 2/28 Battalion succinctly recorded, “2140 hours. Arty bombardment commences—the hammers of Hell at work.”

The barrage made a lasting impression on those who witnessed it. Desert Air Force pilot Donald Jack’s 80 Squadron was just behind the front line where he saw “the most enormous artillery barrage.” Jack described it as “the most gigantic pyrotechnics display you could imagine, the rumbling of those guns really horrifying: thank God we weren’t Germans! That went on for a long time.”

Army Service Corps soldier E.G. Waggett recalled that “we were awakened in the early hours of the morning by a tremendous and continuous roar of guns. The sky was full of flashes and tracers.”4 Waiting for the artillery to open up was “a very tense time,” admitted Royal Engineer officer John Laing. When it commenced, Laing was surprised that “there was so much noise.” He felt the inner tension drain away as “the deafening din caused a new sort of excitement.” The flickering night sky reminded Laing of the aurora borealis.5 For General Alexander though, while the barrage was an “extraordinary sight” it was also a familiar one for the experienced soldier. It was “reminiscent of the previous world war.” General Ritter von Thoma had a similar recollection. Explaining what had happened to another captured German general, von Thoma recalled that that the Eighth Army barrage had lasted “all night long, just as it used to be in the Great War.” Von Thoma also had the unpleasant task of informing Rommel upon his return from Germany that “a great many of our anti-tank guns, especially the 5 cms ones, have been put out of action.”

For fifteen minutes, the forty-eight medium guns and 424 field guns in 30 Corps pounded the Axis gun positions. The counter-battery fire aimed to destroy the Axis guns and their crews and to create “the utmost disorganisation of the lines of communication, replenishment and reinforcement.” At 2155 hours, the barrage paused for five minutes as the assaulting infantry approached their first objectives. Then at 2200 hours, all 900 field and medium guns opened up in direct support of the advancing infantry pounding the enemy positions facing them. The War Diary of the Australian 2/24 Battalion recorded the purpose of each barrage. At 2140 hours, it recorded: “Arty barrage opens. The massed arty of 30th Corps proceeding to pound all known enemy bty positions.” Then at 2155 hours, it recorded: “Arty barrage switches from CB [counter-battery] to enemy FDLs [forward defense lines] as a ‘creeping barrage’ moving at the rate of 100 yards in 3 mins.” Not everything went smoothly, though, and the 2/24 Australian Battalion’s War Diary recorded a perennial danger for the infantry. It noted that: “Bn experienced some trouble throughout by one our 25 pdr guns dropping short.” Notes produced by the Royal Artillery immediately after the battle showed how far Eighth Army doctrine had come in the space of a few short months. The “chief artillery lesson” to emerge from the battle was “the value of centralised control of artillery and that a really heavy concentration of artillery fire put down on a carefully thought out plan will so neutralise the enemy, that infantry, unsupported by armour, will be able to gain their objectives without undue casualties.”

The Notes observed that this “lesson” merely “confirms what is already known” but that for too long, “the need for adequate artillery support is so frequently overlooked in training.” The first foot soldiers of 30th Corps to advance from their slit trenches were the engineers and their protection parties. Soldier/historian David Fraser wrote of the British Engineers that “no corps was more constantly in demand, so much master of so many tasks.” This was never more true than in this second battle of Alamein. After a whole day of lying concealed in slit trenches close to the start line, the engineers now had vital tasks to perform. First they had to open the prepared pathways through the last British minefield so that the assaulting infantry could assemble on the taped start lines. In total, the engineers of Eighth Army carried 130 miles of white tape and 80,000 hurricane lamps for this task. The hurricane lamps were blacked out except for a small hole that could only be seen by the advancing infantry. Second, they had to assist the infantry through the German “Minengarten” ahead of them. Finally, they had to prepare two cleared corridors through these minefields for the armor of 10 Corps to follow the infantry attack. The New Zealand commander General Freyberg was correct when he informed his senior engineer officer on the morning of the attack that “A terrible lot depends on the Sappers.” His senior engineer assured him, “I am confident they are well drilled.”

All the engineers were certainly well-drilled, although some of the new equipment—the Polish electric mine detector and the “Scorpion” flail tanks—had yet to be tested in battle. The Scorpion was a modified Matilda Infantry tank fitted with a rotating steel drum on its front. Attached to the drum were heavy chain flails that beat the ground ahead of it and thus could clear a path through a minefield. But the Scorpion was still experimental in October 1942 and had serious deficiencies. The drum was spun by a Ford V8 engine mounted in a small armored compartment on the side of the tank. In testing, the Scorpion never missed a mine, but the poorly vented V8 engine soon overheated. In operation, the Scorpion created such a thick dust cloud that its operators had to wear respirators. These teething problems and the low numbers of Scorpions available forced 30th Corps to keep them in reserve to be used for emergencies only. Even the electric mine detectors were in short supply in October 1942 and many sappers had to resort to the old, less reliable method of prodding with bayonets to locate the mines. Working to clear the German minefield facing the 44th Division in 13 Corps, Royal Engineer officer John Laing recalled that his sappers were not troubled by the German artillery firing on them. Instead, “They had enough to contend with locating mines and marking the clear lanes, all the time being on the receiving end of mortar bombs, small arms and machine-gun fire.” It was dangerous work, Laing acknowledged. “There were, of course, casualties and we dealt with them as well as we could." At the end of the night, Laing’s sappers had successfully breached the German minefield.

The Axis forces were alarmed at how easily parts of the “Minengarten” had been breached. Prisoner of war statements taken during the battle, including one from General Ritter von Thoma, captured on November 4, confirmed that “they thought that no armoured force could get through their extensive minefields.” But as German staff officer Alfred Toppe later wrote, “The ‘mine gardens’ referred to previously did not have the desired effect, because many of the mines had been detonated by the artillery fire or during bombing attacks.” Some mines were undoubtedly detonated by bombs and artillery shells. However, the main reason for the “Minengarten” not having the desired effect was the courage and skill of the sappers who cleared pathways through them. Alexander recognized the sappers’ contribution in this El Alamein battle and informed Churchill that it was the “incessant mine clearing by engineer battalions often under intense fire, [which] opened the way for … the equally hard fighting” that followed. David Fraser, retired general and historian of the British Army in the Second World War, described the mine clearing operations of the sappers as “the key task affecting the speed and success of operations.” He wrote that, “Without the successful performance of the Royal Engineers, there would have been no victory of Alamein.” The courage and skill of the sappers clearing the mines was “beyond praise.”

The Desert Air Force (DAF) commenced its part in the battle well before the evening of October 23. It had almost 600 serviceable aircraft available to support army operations.19 The DAF’s preliminary air operations commenced on the night of October 18 with bombing attacks against German transport hubs, supply dumps, port facilities, and airfields. This preliminary bombing campaign aimed to destroy vital supply and communication facilities and keep the Axis air force on the defensive. It also aimed to cripple enemy morale by “keeping them awake for three days.” Flying up to 700 sorties a day, the DAF “rapidly established effective air control of the battle area.” On October 23, the DAF commander, Air Marshal Arthur “Mary” Coningham, informed Montgomery that the DAF now had “complete domination of the air.” On the first day of the battle, the DAF flew around 1,000 sorties; by comparison, the German Luftwaffe flew just 107.21At 2200 hours, as the artillery barrage recommenced in direct support of the advancing infantry, the DAF joined in. The first flights were made by some ninety bombers and included flare-dropping Albacores to illuminate enemy locations. Also used were Hurricane fighters especially equipped for night strafing attacks, which targeted the Axis heavy and medium gun positions that were beyond the range of the British artillery. This set the pattern for ground-air cooperation for the duration of the battle. Niall Barr writes, “Finally, the Desert Air Force could put its whole force into the fight.”

The sheer weight of Eighth Army’s attack, with the unexpected main effort being made in the north of the Alamein position, stunned the Axis defenders. While their casualties were not heavy and much of their artillery survived the “stonks” and “murders” of their opponents, the initial response of the Axis was “slow and weak.”23 The reason for this was that one essential tool had been effectively damaged by the artillery and air attacks. Most of the telephone cables to forward units had been cut and the DAF was using some of its old bombers to jam Axis wireless traffic. That night, Panzerarmee commander General Georg Stumme knew that the British offensive was underway, but that was the limit of his knowledge. German artillery response was “inefficient” and even on October 24, the Axis armor had not moved forward, “apparently still in doubt as to the point of main attack.”24 Von Thoma’s secretly recorded conversation with Crüwell shortly after the battle confirmed that the state of confusion that existed in the first twenty-four hours of the battle. It confirmed that the Panzerarmee had expected Eighth Army’s attack to be made further south, where “we would have trapped them easily. But they weren’t so obliging.” Von Thoma grudgingly admitted that “The swine [Montgomery] had chosen a very good place” to attack and it had caught Panzerarmee Afrika off balance.

When the artillery opened up after their five-minute pause at 2200 hours, it was zero hour for the infantry. Infantry from the eight brigades and four divisions of 30th Corps set off toward their first objectives. The killing time had commenced. This was the largest night attack yet undertaken by the British and it set a pattern for the rest of the war. While the Axis troops often moved into position during the cover of darkness, they seldom chose to fight at night. Generalmajor Alfred Toppe, writing of the German Army’s experience in the Second World War, confirmed that “In general the Germans carried out no night attacks.” Conversely, from October 1942, “the British carried out their large scale attacks on the German positions at Alamein exclusively at night.” Montgomery, Toppe analyzed, “preferred night combat.” There was one overriding reason for Montgomery’s preference. In terms of tactical ability and combined arms combat, the German military had a definite qualitative edge over its opponents. Only in the use of artillery was this qualitative edge reversed. As David Fraser has written, “the artillery was perhaps the one Arm of the British Army professionally acknowledged by the German enemy as his superior.” Night attacks compensated for tactical and doctrinal weaknesses, especially in infantry and armor, while still allowing the artillery to achieve its effects on the enemy. It did not matter to the artillery whether the fighting occurred at night or during the day. It made a world of difference to the infantry, as the darkness offered considerable protection when the inevitable mistakes occurred.

Fighting at the northern end of the Alamein position on the Eighth Army’s right flank was the infantry of 9th Australian Division. Three battalions were in the front line ready to advance to the first objective. Then, a battalion from each of the two brigades used was scheduled to leapfrog through the newly won position and push on to the final objective some three miles from the initial start line. This was no easy task, as all battalions “faced German infantry and had to pass through heavy belts of mines.” On the extreme right flank near the coast, the “Chinese” deception attacks and raids by 2/43 Battalion of 24th Australian Brigade created a diversion that proved costly in casualties. The two platoons that took part in these diversionary raids suffered “about 50 per cent casualties against strong opposition.” The dummy figures illuminated during the “Chinese” attack also attracted a lot of enemy fire.

On the right of the divisional sector, as soon as the artillery barrage lifted, the 2/24th Battalion of 26th Australian Brigade charged the enemy posts facing it and easily secured the first objective. It was 2/24 Battalion that was plagued with the one 25-pounder constantly dropping short, probably caused by either human error or a worn gun barrel. But with one exception, all of the battalion’s companies reached their objectives “without great opposition.” The one exception was D Company, which was “held up for a time until enemy MG post were silenced.” Once on the objective, 2/24 Battalion consolidated and laid out a new start line for the next part of the operation. Casualties during the two-hour advance had been light, with four killed and thirty-nine wounded. The leapfrog battalion, the 2/48th, formed up and set off at the appointed time of 0055 hrs on October 24. While 2/48 Battalion met considerable resistance, by 0245 hours the final objective had been captured. The battalion’s casualties were similar to those of 2/24: four killed and twenty-five wounded. It had taken seventy prisoners. Once on the final objective, 2/48 Battalion dug in using galvanized iron to provide overhead cover and set out its own portable minefield. Its War Diary recorded that the battalion “made a protective Hawkins double row minefield of 2400 mines around the FDLs … and all supporting weapons in posn.” Vehicles and Bren gun carriers brought forward stores and ammunition to enable the battalion to be “self supporting and able to hold the ground won for several days even if cut off.” It was not going to be an easy task removing 2/48 Battalion. The complete success of the two 26 Brigade battalions secured the right flank of the attack. It was a major contribution to 30th Corps’ operations.

To the left of 26th Australian Brigade, 20th Australian Infantry Brigade had a much wider sector allocated to it. It advanced with two battalions forward: 2/17 on the right and 2/15 on the left. Approaching the first objective, 2/17 Battalion came under heavy fire and suffered 80 casualties. Despite these losses, both battalions had taken and secured the first objective by midnight. From here, 2/13 Battalion formed up, ready to continue the advance onto the final objective. This battalion, with a long frontage of 2,200 yards, was to be assisted in its push to the final objective by forty-two Valentine tanks of 40 Royal Tank Regiment (RTR). But at 0055 hours, no tanks had arrived and 2/13 Battalion waited some minutes for them. The lack of armored support and the delay it caused had serious consequences. While the delay in 2/13’s advance was only a few minutes, it meant that the battalion had lost the full value of the artillery support from the 25-pounders. After advancing around 1,700 yards, 2/13 Battalion came under heavy fire from both their front and the open left flank. A minefield 1,500 yards deep formed part of the Axis defenses here. Its War Diary assessed the minefield as “creating a serious problem.”33 It was too big an obstacle to be cleared by bayonet or mine detectors, so two Scorpion tanks were brought up. However, their V8 engines soon overheated so that the attempt had to be abandoned. As the casualties mounted, especially amongst its junior officers, 2/13 Battalion’s advance was brought to a halt. At 0500 hours, some Valentines from 40th RTR finally reached the beleaguered battalion and the surviving infantry tried to renew the advance. A small advance was made, but the loss of thirteen tanks to mines and the increasing light made it too dangerous for infantry and tanks to remain in the open. The tanks sought shelter where they could and the infantry dug in, still some 1,000 yards short of the final objective. As they were digging, the battalion was bombed by the DAF and suffered another four casualties, including two men being killed. While it did not record the numbers, the battalion’s War Diary reported to brigade headquarters that its casualties during the night “have been hy [heavy]” and that “a front line was established in front of enemy minefields.”

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The Battle for North Africa, El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II - Glyn Harper

At dawn on October 24, 9th Australian Division had one battalion in strength on the final objective. But to its left, a greatly weakened battalion was still considerably short of it. The first objective was well secured, though, with three battalions there in good strength who were soon reinforced with the arrival of support weapons and Valentine tanks. The Australian casualties, while “reported as not unduly heavy,” were not light and had been particularly heavy in two battalions. During this first night, the Australians captured 137 Germans and 264 Italian prisoners.

On the Australians’ left flank was the 51st (Highland) Division fighting its first action in the desert war. It had a tough task ahead of it: an advance of five miles needed to take and hold a front of almost three miles on the final objective. Its inexperience when compared to the two formations flanking it was obvious. At first, things went well. The gaps in the British minefield were cleared, the start line laid out, and the first wave of infantry set off on time. Some units had their pipers leading the way playing the stirring tune “Hieland Laddie.” But once across the start line, the fog of war descended heavily and the situation became chaotic. For 51st Highland Division, “the advance developed into individual operations by the various assault groups for, with a general breakdown of communications throughout the sector, many of the groups were ignorant of the progress of their neighbours as they fought for the four objective lines.”

On the northern part of the sector, 153rd Brigade had designated one battalion, the 5th Black Watch, to take the first two objectives. When this was done, another battalion, the 1st Gordons, with Valentine tanks of 50th RTR in support, would push on and take the remaining two objectives. The 5th Black Watch captured the first two objectives without much trouble. But when the two leading companies of 1st Gordons advanced from the second objective, they came under heavy fire, most likely from 30 Corps’ artillery dropping short. Lieutenant Ewen Frazer, who was with the Gordons and who would be awarded the DSO for his conduct that night, recalled “a jumble of fleeting incidents.” He recalled that the artillery “din was terrific” and that the smoke and dust it caused “reduced visibility to about 50 yards.”37 The two companies pulled back and waited for the fire to subdue, but when they advanced again they had lost their artillery support. Two strong points ahead of them were attacked with a bayonet charge, but the attack was beaten off, leaving the survivors dazed and confused. Some officers and NCOs were able to rally the men and an outflanking maneuver was attempted, which was partially successful. They captured part of the further strongpoint, but the enemy held the rest of it. At dawn, three officers and around sixty men were trapped in this position under constant fire and out of communication with the rest of the battalion.

The rest of 1 Gordons had awaited the arrival of fifteen tanks from 50th RTR. As usual, the tanks arrived late and could not find the infantry. By the time the two arms had married up, all artillery support had ceased and the enemy was alert to the attack. When two of the Valentine tanks were lost on a minefield, the whole force moved back to the second captured objective, where they dug in “fast and furiously.” Ewen Frazer recalled a desperate decision made that morning:

“Time was getting on. It was now nearly 0400 hrs and the force was still 1500 yards at least from the final objective. It was known that the ground was very hard and that at least an hours digging was required to get the troops sufficiently well into the ground.It was, therefore, improbable that even if the advance met with relatively little opposition, by the time the gap in the minefield was forced and the troops got forward onto the objective it would be daylight and the troops very vulnerable to a counterattack.”

Frazer, the senior surviving officer now commanding the remnants of two companies, dug in on a protected slope surrounded by a minefield. He recalled that, “None of us felt very good taking such casualties to achieve so little, but getting down to a familiar routine helped to relieve the stress.”

This was a critical failure when combined with 2/13th Australian Battalion’s inability to reach its final objective. The 1st Gordons and 2/13th link up was to provide the corridor for 1st Armoured Division to progress through the minefields and into the battle. This combined failure meant that 1st Armoured Division would not be moving that night or on ­October 24.

On the left of 153rd Brigade’s sector, the 5/7th Gordons easily captured their first objective. But when two companies of the battalion set off for their second objective, one became trapped in a dense minefield; the other was forced to take cover well short of it. At dawn on October 24, 153rd Brigade was in a precarious state. Its maximum advance was still 2,000 yards short of the final objective, where the remnants of the 1st Gordons were holding an exposed position under fire. The rest of the brigade had gained only their intermediate objective, which they held in isolated pockets. A concerted counterattack would easily remove them. All communications had broken down and most of the officers and NCOs had great difficulty in both navigating at night and plotting their new positions on the map. Brigade and Divisional headquarters had no idea where their units were and which enemy strongpoints still faced them.

The Highland Division’s left sector of the attack, which would link with the New Zealanders, was allocated to its 154th Brigade. As this sector was much wider, 154th Brigade had been reinforced with tanks from 50th RTR and additional infantry from the reserve brigade. On the right of this sector, 1st Black Watch set off on time, closely following the artillery barrage and with its pipers to the fore. The first objective was easily taken. Pushing on to the final objective, one company of the battalion fought its way through a dense minefield while under heavy machine gun fire. Despite heavy casualties, this company pushed on, almost reaching the final objective, where it occupied an enemy strongpoint along with the thirty prisoners it had captured. Another company on the right stumbled upon a large German strongpoint that it had to subdue. Elements of this company reached the final objective, but fire from the open right flank forced them to retire back to the captured strongpoint.

In 15th4 Brigade’s center was the 7/10th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the tanks of 50th RTR. The battalion was to advance to the final objective where the tanks were to join it and assist in subduing any opposition. The 7/10th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders set off on time against little opposition. Casualties soon mounted due to the minefields, booby traps, and mortar and artillery fire. After subduing an enemy strongpoint near the final objective, the battalion, now numbering about 100 men, dug in and awaited the Valentine tanks of 50th RTR. These did not appear until just after 5:00 a.m. and were way to the south and cut off by a dense minefield. With light approaching, no further progress could be made. The lack of support provided by 50th RTR was a telling factor. Knowing what was ahead of them that night, it is hard to understand why 50th RTR had no Scorpion tanks allocated to it, nor why the accompanying sappers “had no detectors in working order.” The navigation skills of the tank commanders were also poor. Even at this stage, Eighth Army still had much to learn.

On the far left, 154th Brigade had borrowed two companies of 5th Camerons from the reserve (152) brigade. The Camerons were to capture the first objective from where the 7th Black Watch would push onto the final objective. The two companies of 5th Camerons advanced in concert with the New Zealanders on their left. Despite considerable opposition and heavy artillery fire, the Camerons captured the first objective on time. Closely following them was the infantry from 7th Black Watch, which continued the fight to the final objective. Its casualties were heavy, including all six officers detailed to navigate the battalion along its axis of advance. Despite these setbacks, 7th Black Watch captured the final objective, the northwestern edge of Miteiriya Ridge, known as Point 30, just after 0400 hours. The 7th Black Watch had less than fifty men here and all three officers with them were wounded. Contact was made with 21st New Zealand Battalion on the left, but the right flank was open and exposed. The remnants of two companies of 7th Black Watch now held a forward slope in the midst of a minefield and were exposed to enemy fire. But this was the only portion of the final objective held by 51st Highland Division on the morning of October 24.

The position of 51st Highland Division that morning was tenuous. It is hard to comprehend why an inexperienced division had been allocated such a wide frontage and deep objectives. Contact across their front was patchy at best and no clear picture of it could be obtained for some time. The Highlanders “had encountered more German anti-personnel mines than any other division and casualties had been correspondingly heavy.” It was one of only two infantry divisions in Eighth Army to incur more than 600 casualties in the first twenty-four hours of the battle. Several bypassed enemy posts were still active and prevented support weapons and supplies from moving forward. They also thwarted any attempts to clear the minefields. Immediately behind the Highlanders was 1st Armoured Division waiting for the minefields to be cleared and causing considerable congestion. Only on the extreme left was the division on the final objective, but not in any great strength. In fact, it held this portion of Miteiriya Ridge with only one-and-a-half platoons of infantry. Elsewhere, the division was not within 1,000 yards of the final objective and thinly spread across its front. The situation did not look promising.

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The Battle for North Africa, El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II - Glyn Harper

On the left flank of 51st Highland Division was another experienced, battle-hardened formation: the 2nd New Zealand Division. The objective the New Zealanders were expected to seize was most of Miteiriya Ridge, the scene of an Australian disaster the previous July and a key fea­ture of the Alamein position. Freyberg believed that this battle, unlike pre­vious ones during the desert campaign, “approximates the battles fought in 1918,” and he turned to the techniques developed in that war to plan the New Zealand attack. Of the attacking infantry divisions on the night of October 23, 1942, the 2nd New Zealand Division was the only one to use a quarter of its 104 guns to provide a creeping barrage for the infantry to “lean on” during their advance while the rest of its artillery fired concentrations on known strong points. There is some debate as to how effective the creeping barrage was, although its effect on morale was high. The New Zealand official historian of the divisional artillery wrote that a creeping barrage, when combined with counter-battery concentrations, were the “correct artillery tactics,” but that the number of guns was “too few to be fully effective.” Lieutenant General Sir Francis Tuker, commander of 4th Indian Division, was blunt in his assessment of the use of artillery at the second Alamein battle. He described the creeping barrage as “wasteful” and believed that the dispersion of the artillery effort prolonged the outcome of the battle.

On the right of the New Zealand sector, 5th NZ Brigade was to advance 7,000 yards while 6th NZ Brigade, on their left, advanced 5,000 yards. This would bring both brigades to their final objective, the Miteiriya Ridge, which they were to hold in equal portions. Once the two brigades were established on the ridge, the support weapons and 9th Armoured Brigade was to move forward to join them, the latter to take up defensive positions in front of the infantry. Freyberg noted that the “Armoured COs were full of confidence and very cheerful—maybe they will be ‘sadder and wiser’ men but it is good to see them in such fine form.” Freyberg, an old warrior, knew the cost of what lay ahead.

Each brigade had decided to take its first objective with only one battal­ion, and then push through two more battalions onto the final objective of Miteiriya Ridge. The 28th Maori Battalion was allocated to “mop up” any opposition in both brigade areas. This was an important role given what had occurred at Ruweisat Ridge, but one that they felt demeaned their status as proud fighting infantry warriors. A recent history of the battalion records this frustration:

“It is difficult to determine or understand why the Maori were left out of the main attack. Their pre-eminence in attack and their outstanding ability to capture their objective was indisputable. Perhaps their failure to obey orders at Munassib the previous month may have worried Kippenberger.”

On the eve of the attack, Brigadier Kippenberger delivered a stirring piece of ora­tory to 23th NZ Battalion, who were keyed up for action:

“I told them that this was the turn of the war and the greatest moment of their lives: they had the duty and the honour of breaking in, on which everything depended; our hats were in the ring and I expected them to do it, whatever the cost. Reg [Romans, the Commanding Officer] called the men to their feet and they gave three fierce, thun­derous cheers. As I went away someone remarked that our first objective was as good as taken.”

The decision to use the “fiery” Lieutenant Colonel Reg Romans and his most reliable battalion in the initial advance nearly caused disaster. Romans’ battalion easily carried the first objective. But resistance had been scanty and, as those counting the paces had become casualties, they were unsure where they were. So, they pushed on. In the words of their adjutant:

“But there was no standing barrage. Reg and I discussed it and we agreed that we hadn’t seen anything like the fighting that the break-in battalion had every right to expect. Reg said “Push on! Push on!” and so we went on to take what we thought was our objective.”

It was, in fact, Miteiriya Ridge, the brigade’s final objective.

Meanwhile, Kippenberger and Brigade HQ had been driven frantic try­ing to locate or contact 23rd NZ Battalion. The brigade’s war diary contains repeated references to the battalion’s disappearance: “Still NO report from 23rd Bn.” An entry made as late as 0115 hours on October 24 recorded: “Capt Coop reported he had been right up to barrage and could NOT find 23 Bn. Presumed 23rd Bn ahead of the barrage.” Word was finally received of the battalion’s actions at 0235 hours, when its adjutant reported to Brigade Headquarters. Little wonder that he received “a rather frosty reception” from Kippenberger, and the blunt instruction: “You go back and tell Reg to pull back to his proper, initial objective.”

Kippenberger’s brigade had easily secured all its objectives, and he wrote proudly back to New Zealand: “Very hard fighting in this attack, but the troops were simply magnificent and my Bde got the whole of its objective on the first night. We lost a lot of good chaps though.”

On the left, the two battalions of 6th NZ Brigade had pulled up 500 to 800 yards short of its final objective—the result of faulty map reading rather than enemy resistance. The rest of the ground was taken in another overnight attack on October 26. Its commander, William Gentry, wrote home to his family on October 28: “We have just fought a battle in which the lads did magnificent work in an operation which, whatever the final outcome, will go down in military history as a model of its type.”

The 2nd New Zealand Division had been the most successful of all the infantry divisions used on the opening night, thanks to a combination of experience in night fighting in the desert, excellent military leadership, hard realistic training prior to the battle, and the “new” creeping barrage. But Kippenberger was right: losses in both brigades had been heavy. The situation was risky. At dawn the enemy artillery pounded the newly won position. Oliver Leese, the 30th Corps commander, informed Montgomery later that morning that, “They [Axis] did a hell of a lot of shooting up this morning” and that Miteiriya Ridge “was full of hate.”

To the south of the New Zealanders on 30 Corps’ left flank was the 1st South African Division. Linking with the New Zealanders on its right was the South African 2nd Infantry Brigade. It would use the Natal Mounted Rifles to secure the first objective before pushing the Cape Town Highlanders on the right and the 1/2nd Frontier Force Battalion on the left on to the final objective. The advance was supported by artillery concentrations timed to fall on known enemy defensive positions ahead of each battalion.

The Natal Mounted Rifles easily reached the first objective on time and with sixty-seven Italian prisoners. But enemy strongpoints it failed to clear during its advance delayed the two follow-up battalions. These not only caused heavy casualties but both battalions soon lost their artillery support. As the New Zealanders were now well ahead of the South Africans, several parties of infantry from 6th New Zealand Brigade had to cross the boundary into the South African sector to deal with the enemy posts firing on them. The Cape Town Highlanders eventually reached Miteiriya Ridge at 0500 but, like 25 New Zealand Battalion, it halted on a crest some 800 to 1,000 yards short of the final objective. On 2nd South African Brigade’s left flank, the Frontier Force Battalion encountered a heavily defended German position on its way to the ridge. While it captured part of the position, it could not subdue it. Having lost 183 men, of whom forty-two were killed, the battalion dug in at dawn still well short of Miteiriya Ridge.

This defended position also halted the initial advance of 3rd South African Brigade. Despite some initial setbacks and hard fighting, the brigade was able to establish two battalions, the Royal Durban Light Infantry and the 1st Battalion of the Imperial Light Horse, on Miteiriya Ridge just after 0500 hours. There they were joined by two squadrons of Valentine tanks of 8th Royal Tank Regiment and an anti-tank gun screen facing into no-man’s land. By dawn, 1st South African Division was well established on its final objective except at the vital junction with the New Zealanders on its right flank.

The South Africans and New Zealanders had made a large dent through the dense minefields and captured part of the vital Miteiriya Ridge. At dawn, they were ready with support weapons and some tanks to repel any counterattack. According to Nigel Hamilton, this was “inconceivable to Rommel” and “a magnificent infantry performance.”

This infantry assault by the four divisions of 30th Corps was the largest launched in the desert war. Despite the “Minengarten” and the determined opposition of German and Italian infantry Lightfoot had “achieved considerable success.” While each division had carried out its attack in its own way, they were fighting to a common doctrine. The hard training had clearly paid off, although not everything had gone according to plan. Only two of the eight brigades involved had captured their final objective. It was, however, a sound start. “By 0800 hours GCT the infantry had advanced about 5 miles and reached initial objectives along Miteiriya Ridge,” Eighth Army later reported. But Alexander, in his Despatch, recognized that it was only a partial success. He wrote:

“By 0530 hours 9 Australian Division on the right had secured most of its final objective, nine thousand yards from the start line; the New Zealand Division had also captured its final objective, the western end of the Miteiriya ridge. In the centre, however, the left brigade of the Australian Division and the Highland Division were held up about fifteen hundred yards short of their objective by enemy strongpoints in the middle of what should have been the northern corridor and on the left the South African Division fell short of the Miteiriya ridge by about five hundred yards.”

Other infantry attacks had also occurred on the night of October 23. In the center, 4th Indian Division, under command of 30th Corps, carried out three minor diversionary operations around Ruweisat Ridge, one of which was another “Chinese” attack. Its history described the division’s role here as “something more than spectators and something less than participants in the main battle.” The raids and a simulated full-scale assault by two battalions on the night of October 23 were noisy and did not “score any obvious success.” They did, however, keep the Axis forces guessing and prevented them from moving troops from this sector throughout the battle.

In the south of the Alamein position, 13th Corps also carried out diversionary attacks. Unlike those of 4th Indian Division, those of 13th Corps were “fairly costly.” The Corps was holding an extended portion of the El Alamein position from Ruweisat Ridge in the center to the Qattara Depression. The whole sector was overlooked by the large hill known as Himeimat. Its key task was to keep the armor of 21st Panzer Division in the southern part of the Alamein position while preserving its own armor in 7th Armoured Division “as an effective fighting formation.” Having a diversionary role meant that 13 Corps was short of artillery, sappers, and armor. As Major General John Harding, then commanding 7 Armoured Division, later stated, “there was a feeling that we … were to be the Cinderella of the party.” Attempts to breach the minefields were made by the two armored brigades of 7th Armoured Division, which were short of essential equipment. They were also under intense artillery fire. This had not been subdued by counter-battery fire and the enemy gunners were convinced by the deception plan that an attack was likely. The armored brigades managed to clear one minefield, but they faced another one at dawn. This left both brigades trapped at dawn between two minefields and under constant artillery fire. Brigadier “Pip” Roberts went forward to inspect the position on the morning of October 24 and reported:

“The initial impression was of complete chaos; vehicles, tanks and carriers facing in different directions, some still burning, some at curious angles, and enemy shells arriving fairly steadily but not in great quantity.”

An attempt by the 1st Free French Brigade to take Himeimat that night failed leaving the whole area overlooked by enemy observation posts. An attempt by 1/7th The Queens’s Royal Regiment of 44 Division to capture another enemy strongpoint that night also failed. In making this attempt, 1/7th The Queen’s had seventy-six men killed and 104 men wounded. The casualties included the Commanding Officer, who was killed, and the battalion’s second-in-command, adjutant, and all the company commanders. “We were stuck,” recalled John Harding. “This was the position for the next couple of days.” Niall Barr’s summation of 13 Corps’ efforts on October 23–24 is accurate: “13th Corps operations, in short, had not been attended by success.” They had been attended by unnecessarily high casualties.


The Battle for North Africa, El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II - Glyn Harper

The essence of Montgomery’s plan was for the heavy armor of Eighth Army, now concentrated in 10th Corps, to move forward and join the infantry on their new positions. This was to be accomplished before dawn on October 24. Once in position, rather than surging forward in another doomed cavalry charge, the armor was to take up defensive positions and shield the infantry during the “dogfight” phase of the battle. Only at one location had this happened on that morning.

For Operation Lightfoot, the 9th Armoured Brigade was an integral part of the New Zealand Division. Its leading regiment, the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, reached the infantry of 22nd New Zealand Battalion just after 0600. They were guided over Miteiriya Ridge, moved well forward of the infantry, and started shooting at the enemy outposts ahead of them. Freyberg’s Diary recorded this significant event :

“0612 [hrs] Our tanks reported coming through on 5th Bde front. They are taking up battle positions forward of FDLs.”

One of the Royal Wiltshire squadrons hit a scattered minefield on the ridge and suffered heavy losses: six Shermans and thirteen Grant tanks. At first light, just after 0630 hours, with the German anti-tank guns now firing on them and the danger of more uncleared minefields, the Royal Wilshire Yeomanry returned to 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade’s positions on the reverse slope to take up hull-down defensive positions. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry had “the honour of being the first, and only, regiment to break out beyond the infantry’s final objective on this first morning of the Alamein battle.”

On the left of the New Zealand position, the tanks of the Warwickshire Yeomanry and New Zealand Division Cavalry reached the infantry positions of 6th New Zealand Brigade. They did not try to penetrate the minefields over the ridge but halted in hull-down positions along the entire brigade front. Despite the limited success of 9th Armoured Brigade’s move forward, it was a significant development which Freyberg fully recognized. He wrote in his Secret Report of Operation Lightfoot:

“The appearance of the Sherman tanks of the 9th Armoured Brigade with their 75 millimetre guns was a great encouragement to the infantry, who, for the first time in the campaign, founds tanks with them in the F.D.Ls.”

But the bulk of the armor concentrated to 10 Corps was nowhere near the infantry FDL’s. On the right in the north, 1st Armoured Division was stalled behind a mass of congested vehicles and had not even reached the first cleared minefield. To the south, even though there was a cleared pathway right up to Miteiriya Ridge, 10th Armoured Division had sent only one brigade forward to the ridge. When the lead regiment crossed the ridge, a deluge of anti-tank gunfire fell on it, knocking out ten tanks. The brigade retired and dispersed along the ridge waiting for things to improve. Unfortunately, Miteiriya Ridge, now densely packed with around 200 tanks and several battalions of infantry, was “a perfect target and the ridge was heavily shelled throughout the morning.” Niall Barr has written that the failure of the armored corps to break through on Miteiriya Ridge on the first day “was in fact predicable.” He argues that had the armored brigades pushed on beyond the ridgeline, they would have suffered devastating losses. This is certainly true, but such losses would need to be faced sooner or later. The last thing Montgomery wanted for the morning of October 24 was major traffic congestion along the two cleared corridors and along Miteiriya Ridge. As his biographer wrote, “This was not what Bernard had envisaged for the strongest armoured corps fielded by the Allies in the war so far.” Bierman and Smith have written that in comparison with what the infantry had achieved on this opening night, the armored formations in 10th Corps “had put up a dismal performance.” Montgomery was soon convinced that “the armour was dragging its feet.” He wrote in his diary on October 24:

"I began to form the impression at about 1100 hours that there was a lack of “drive” and pep in the action of 10th Corps. I saw Herbert LUMSDEN and impressed on him the urgent need to get his divisions out into the open where they could manoeuvre, and that they must get clear of the minefield area. He left me about 1130 hours to visit his Divisions. So far he has not impressed me by his showing in battle; perhaps he has been out here too long; he has been wounded twice. I can see that he will have to be bolstered up and handled firmly.
Possibly he will be better when the battle gets more mobile. This “sticky” fighting seems beyond him."

Montgomery’s opinion of Lumsden and his armored corps was shaped by a conversation he had with Leese just after midday. All morning, the 30th Corps commander had been receiving a barrage of complaints from Freyberg regarding 10th Corps’ lack of progress. Repeated entries in Freyberg’s diary record his concern:

0745 [hrs] G1 asked LO 9th Armd Bde to confirm message to 10th Armd Div that it is more and more essential that they should get through.

0847 G1 to 30 Corps. Ascertained not in communication with 10 Armd Div. Told BGS they appeared to making slow progress.

0923 G1 spoke to BGS. Position of 10 Armd Div is not clear except they don’t appear to be getting on very fast. GOC keeps calling up asking us to please put some energy into 10th Armd Div. Thin skinned stuff cannot cross M. Ridge.1

025 G1 to BGS asking him to press 10 Armd Div to move as above.

As a result of his concerns, Freyberg was informed at 1027 hours that “Oliver [Leese] was on his way here.” Leese arrived at 1045 hours to receive a briefing from the New Zealand principal staff officer and met with both Freyberg and 10 Armoured Division commander Major General Alec Gatehouse. He reported the outcome of the meeting to Montgomery just after midday. Leese’s side of the conversation was recorded in shorthand by Freyberg’s Personal Assistant Major John White. Leese informed Montgomery:

“I have seen Bernard [Freyberg] and Gatehouse and I understand Herbert [Lumsden] has talked to you in last hour. There is one bn of 9th Armored Bde over the ridge. On the left infantry are in touch with SAs and an attack is developing. B. is confident that he could get on. The Wilts in front appear to have run on to some mines on his right—rest of bde is behind ridge. He thinks he could go well through provided one of Gatehouse’s bdes goes with him. G. says Royals report A/Tk weapons and anything that puts its nose over ridge gets shot up. G’s main preoccupation at moment is to get 10 Div into position to receive attack from someone else…. I think we damn well do. He keeps on saying he is trained for a static role. I think that is getting above him. I have told Bernard to hold a meeting with G and Briggs. I am placing whole of Corps arty at his disposal and am suggesting that under smoke they try and do something later in day. What did Herbert say Sir? That is happening…. Shall I send word that it is your wish provided they think it is feasible that they break out with support of whole of Corps arty…. You want to get them into a position so that they can manoeuvre on the far side of M. Ridge…. Right I shall do that. I shall find out earliest time Corps arty can be ready.”

The failure of Eighth Army’s armor to break out beyond the newly won infantry positions was acknowledged by General Alexander to be “a serious delay.” It was “essential” to obtaining “the tactical surprise” on the battlefield. It also gave the Panzerarmee a small window of opportunity to recover from the initial assault and prepare their response.

While not achieving the armored breakthrough, Operation Lightfoot had obtained a tactical surprise, albeit a limited one. As mentioned above, it was some hours after the artillery barrage began at 2140 hours that General Stumme was certain that this was a genuine attack. The War Diary of the Afrika Korps recorded that with the heavy shelling, all its formations were put on alert. “The great weight of shellfire made it seem possible that the enemy were beginning an offensive,” its War Diary recorded.84 While an attack had been anticipated, its weight and direction were unknown. These would not become clear to the Panzerarmee for several hours. As the New Zealand history records, “the Panzer Army headquarters [was] almost completely enveloped in the fog of war until well into the following day.”85 Communications with front line units had been badly disrupted, as intended by the Eighth Army barrage. General Stumme was starved of information for most of the night and well into the morning of October 24. Without it, unlike Rommel, he felt powerless to act. It was not until mid-morning that Stumme took action. In the northern sector, he ordered 15th Panzer Division to counterattack and retake any lost ground.

The command situation became even more confused for Panzerarmee later that morning. For a time, it was without a leader. In an effort to find out how serious the breach in the northern minefield was, Stumme set off with his Chief Signal Officer to see for himself. His staff car came under fire from Australian soldiers and the signals officer was killed. The driver panicked and sped off with General Stumme clinging to the vehicle’s side. It was too much for an overweight general with high blood pressure. Stumme suffered a fatal heart attack and fell from the car. His body was not recovered until midday on October 25. The Afrika Korps War Diary recorded ominously at 1040 hours of two large gaps in the minefields and that: “No news of the C-in-C, who has gone there to clear up the situation.” In Stumme’s absence, General Ritter von Thoma, the Afrika Korps commander, took temporary command pending the arrival of Rommel. Von Thoma did not want to launch any large-scale counterattacks until the British renewed their attack at nightfall. That would reveal where their main effort was. The Afrika Korps War Diary recorded that “It was necessary to concentrate on one main task … to hold the front, commit reserves early, and establish a strong front line.

Rommel was warned that he might be needed back in North Africa at 1500 hours on October 24. Just after midnight, Hitler called him to say that, “In view of developments at Alamein he found himself obliged to ask me to fly back to Africa and resume my command.” Rommel flew out to Africa the next morning and was gloomy at the prospects ahead. He wrote: “I knew there were no more laurels in Africa.” He was correct and, on October 26, wrote to his wife, “Situation critical. A lot of work!”

The situation was indeed critical for both sides. The break-in had been only partially successful and nowhere were the armored formations ahead of the infantry. A 9th Australian Division report contained a succinct summary of the “general state of the battle” on October 24:

(a) The attack in the south had failed;
(b) the attack in the north had succeeded in “breaking in” but had not succeeded in its purpose of passing 10 Armd Corps through and out beyond the enemy defences.
(c) Surprise had been gained and 21 Panzer Div was contained in the south, but 10 Armd Corps was unable to take advantage of that situation;
(d) The Axis infantry in the centre had not been pinched out and the attempt had been abandoned.

The failure to break-in across the whole northern sector placed Operation Lightfoot in jeopardy. It gave Panzerarmee “a chance of roping in the British salient, and bringing such artillery, tank, anti-tank and machine gun fire to bear on the congested, mine-ridden peninsula as to make withdrawal advisable.” The battle hung in the balance and Montgomery’s “killing match” was about to begin in earnest.

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The Battle for North Africa, El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II - Glyn Harper


Operation Lightfoot on the night of October 23 was only partially successful. Most of the infantry formations in 30th Corps had failed to secure their final objectives. More seriously, the armor of 10th Corps had not come close to striking out beyond the infantry positions and exploiting the enemy’s state of confusion in that first twenty-four hours. Montgomery was annoyed at this missed opportunity and always regarded it as “a tragedy.” His plan for the “dogfight” phase of the battle depended on the “crumbling” operations beginning on the morning after the break-in when the enemy was vulnerable and off balance. The immediate task for October 24, then, was for the infantry of 30th Corps to try to reach their final objectives while the armor of 10th Corps, with more “ginger” put into their commanders, surged out beyond the infantry, ready to take on the armor of the Afrika Korps.

In 30th Corps sector, the Australians and Highlanders planned to renew their attempts in the late afternoon while to the south, 13th Corps would make another attempt to breach the minefields causing them so many problems. Around Ruweisat Ridge, the 4th Indian Division planned another raid that night.

At 1500 hours on October 24, 51st Highland Division, having incurred nearly 1,000 casualties already, renewed its attack with the aim of clearing a pathway for the 1st Armoured Division. It had taken most of the morning of October 24 for Major General Wimberley to find out where his scattered troops were. His men were exhausted from the battle of the night before and their numbers were seriously depleted. Wimberley was forced to commit a battalion from his reserve, 2nd Battalion, the Seaforth Highlanders, to attack and clear two strongpoints holding up further progress. This battalion overran both strongpoints, but at a cost of eighty-five casualties. A force of Valentine tanks in support did not reach the objective and lost seven tanks when it ran onto a minefield. The extended front of 51st Highland Division was too large an objective to be taken by isolated platoons and small companies of men. The attacks made by the remnants of 51st Highland Division on October 24, with the exception of the Seaforth Highlanders, were “small, piecemeal attacks, messy and confused affairs” and “were of limited effectiveness.” Operating in the sector was hazardous, as the strong enemy pockets that remained had good observation and could bring fire upon any movement. The Division would not occupy the entire final objective until the night of October 26.

As the Highlanders were making their attacks, to their north two battalions from 20th Australian Brigade advanced toward their final objectives. They had just over 1,000 yards to cover. The advance by 2/17 and 2/13 Battalions was meant to be preceded by another heavy artillery barrage, but earlier patrols had found little opposition to target. Instead, “It was therefore decided to cancel the artillery programme and make the advance silently.” It commenced at 0200 hours on the morning of October 25. The final objective was “so nondescript that only the intelligence men, using maps and compasses and counting paces, could tell the company commanders when they had arrived.” The 2/17th Battalion reached its objective fifty minutes later “without opposition.”6 However, enemy outposts soon “woke up” to the fact that an Australian Battalion was digging in close by and “made things very uncomfortable with spandau fire.” German artillery joined in and the battalion was bombed by an enemy plane. Dawn on October 25 found men who had been without sleep for forty-eight hours ready to face a German counterattack. The Battalion’s War Diary described October 25 as “our worst—‘Black Sunday’ the tps called it.” The War Diary explained why:

“We sustained our heaviest casualties and some of the men’s nerves cracked under the strain. Superhuman work was continually being done by the offrs and men.”

The 2/13th Battalion had a tougher time getting to the objective and encountered pockets of enemy resistance along the way. They reached it at 0235 hours, where the Australians commenced digging in ground so rock hard that the men could not dig deeper than eighteen inches. The worst moment occurred when the tanks of 40th RTR opened fire on the men of 2/13 Battalion while they were digging in. Fortunately, “This was rectified before casualties were inflicted.”

The speed with which the objectives were taken meant that the sappers following the advance could clear four tracks up to the objective and cut a lateral track linking them. Australian losses so far had been relatively light. But tragedy occurred at first light, 0700 hours on October 25, when the 7th Rifle Brigade of 1 Armoured Division arrived on the objective heavily bunched. Their vehicles immediately attracted heavy artillery fire and “the carnage was terrible to watch…. Soon there were dozens of shattered burning vehicles, and dead and wounded soldiers littering the desert.” Despite this setback, and a hard day to follow on October 25, both Australian battalions were firmly on 30th Corps’ final objective.

The main effort for October 24 was to restore some momentum to the armor of 10th Corps by passing them through the infantry positions. This had been the essence of Montgomery’s Lightfoot plan. Rather than using 10th Corps in the corps de chasse role, the armor would instead be used to provide a defensive shield for the infantry and it was expected to help the infantry “crumble” the enemy positions. As Nigel Hamilton explained, “crumbling” to Montgomery “meant attacking the enemy, using concentrated artillery, and assaulting day and night.” This had to commence at dawn on D + 1, which was October 24. Montgomery felt that having “eaten the guts” out of the Panzerarmee’s forward defenses, Rommel would be forced to counterattack using his armored formations, which was exactly “what we want.” If this happened, then “the eventual fate of the Panzer Army is certain—it will not be able to avoid destruction.” But this looked unlikely on the morning of October 24, and the “crumbling” operations could not commence as the infantry, which had already incurred 3,000 casualties, focused on its own protection that morning. This was because no armored units of 10th Corps were in front shielding them. They were not even close.

10th Corps was paralyzed by fear of minefields, and the battle was being fought in one vast minefield. It was even more fearful of the dreaded 88 mm gun being used in the anti-tank role. The armored corps commanders from Lumsden down were incapable of driving their men to achieve the Army Commander’s directives. In the north, where the Australians and Highlanders met fierce resistance, instead of joining them in the fight, 1st Armoured Division “had waited for a safe passage first to be cleared, like belles waiting to go onstage.” In the center, 10th Armoured Division refused to cross the Miteiriya Ridge despite the example set by 9st Armoured Brigade and the urgings of both Leese and Freyberg.

To get the 10th Corps moving, Leese offered to use all of the artillery of 30th Corps in support of 10th Corps when it attacked from the New Zealand position on Miteiriya Ridge that afternoon. Montgomery supported this initiative and the main commanders involved—Leese, Lumsden and Freyberg—met at the New Zealand Divisional Headquarters that afternoon. Lumsden was not keen to attack so soon and Freyberg, sensing Lumsden’s concern regarding the German anti-tank guns, recommended delaying the attack until nightfall. Montgomery and Leese reluctantly agreed to this. Montgomery did stress to Lumsden that 1st Armoured Division in the north must move and get through the Highlanders’ position by nightfall. It was to accept the possibility of heavy casualties as the infantry had done. Montgomery’s frustration can be seen in a diary entry on October 24:

“the main lack of offensive eagerness was in the North … both 9th Aust Div and 51st Highland Div were quite clear that 1 Armd Div could have got out without difficulty in the morning. Lumsden was not displaying that drive and determination that is so necessary when things go wrong; there was a general lack of offensive eagerness in 10th Corps.”

He also threatened to remove the commanders of 1st Armoured Division if they didn’t get moving that afternoon. The emphasis for most of October 24 was to carry out the armored phase of the original plan but with additional support provided by the massed artillery of both 30 and 10 Corps.

At 1500 hours, 51st Highland Division carried out another infantry attack that cleared a passage through the minefields for 1st Armoured Division. An hour later, the brigades of 1st Armoured Division moved forward and by early evening it seemed to be out beyond the forward infantry units. At 1720 hours, the Division’s 2nd Armoured Brigade reported that it was on the feature “Pierson,” which had been one of the original Lightfoot objectives. “My application of ‘ginger’ had worked,” a relieved Montgomery recorded in his diary. The entry was premature, as it was later found that 2 Armoured Brigade was not on Pierson at all, but on the eastern rim of Kidney Ridge and about 1,000 yards short of where it reported it was. Kidney Ridge was not a ridge at all, but a contour line on the map in the shape of a kidney bean. Some accounts of the battle describe it as a low rise or hillock; others as a shallow depression. As Walker stated in the New Zealand official history, “to the naked eye,” Kidney Ridge “presented no clearly distinguishable difference from the desert around it.” While 2nd Armoured Brigade was on the eastern edge of the contour ring, the rest of Kidney Ridge was occupied by Axis forces, including a number of the dreaded 88 mm guns. The Brigade was still to the left rear of the foremost Australian positions and October 24 would be a relatively quiet night for it.

On the left-hand sector, there was less positive news. At 1845 hours, Lumsden reported that 10th Armoured Division was being held up by newly laid minefields below the Miteiriya Ridge. More than this, Lumsden reported that the minefield was covered by anti-tank guns and a force of tanks from 21st Panzer Division, which Montgomery knew at the time was facing Horrocks 13th Corps in the south. Equally disturbing was Lumsden’s report that he did not know where 24th Armoured Brigade, one of the two armored formations in 10th Armoured Division, was. However, Montgomery accepted Lumsden’s assurance that 10th Armoured Division would be out-shielding the New Zealanders by midnight and that the 1st Armoured Division was in action on the Pierson Line. The first full day of battle was over and Montgomery was reasonably satisfied. They were behind schedule, but by dawn on October 25, the armor would be “out” and the dogfight and crumbling operations could begin in earnest. He turned in at his usual time just after 2130 hours, little suspecting that he would have to face a crisis meeting before dawn the next day.

The 10 Armoured Division did try to push out from Miteiriya Ridge, but the attempts were half-hearted or struck serious misfortune. The British official history records that “the night’s operations were ill-fated from the start.” The 24th Armoured Brigade had considerable trouble clearing the minefields to its front and it was not until 0345 hours on October 25 that one lane had been cleared. It took even more time to report this development back to its headquarters. When 8th Armoured Brigade got underway at 2200 hours, it immediately ran into difficulties. As one of its regiments was passing through the narrow cleared laneway, a stick of bombs dropped from some circling Ju 88 bombers caught the regiment in this vulnerable position. Some twenty-five vehicles were set ablaze, illuminating the ridge and providing the Axis forces with some ideal targets. This bombing raid was “the only real success of the Luftwaffe during the early stage of the battle.” It forced the two armored regiments of the brigade to seek shelter on their original positions behind the ridge.

Two regiments of an armored brigade did get out beyond Miteiriya Ridge that night. After replenishing and reorganizing, Brigadier John Currie’s 9th Armoured Brigade, fighting as part of the New Zealand Division, pushed up the ridge just after midnight. There the brigade came upon a scene of “considerable confusion … no one seemed to know what was happening.” This was the 8th Armoured Brigade bunched up and illuminated by “a mass of burning vehicles.” Brigadier Currie found the gap and led his regiments through it. The Brigade advanced a distance of two miles that night “without damage at all.” In doing so, they captured 150 German prisoners including a battalion commander and his staff.21 The next day, 9 Armoured Brigade “had a battle royal till 3 p.m.” The two yeomanry regiments of 9th Armoured Brigade, supported by the New Zealand artillery and infantry, destroyed thirteen tanks, ten guns, and captured hundreds of Axis infantrymen on October 25. This was exactly what Montgomery intended in his “crumbling” operations during the dogfight phase of the battle but it was being carried out by a small fraction of his armored forces. Currie fully intended to advance further on the night of October 25 and was dumbfounded when he received the order to withdraw his tanks back to the Miteiriya Ridge.

One of his officers wrote of this fateful decision:

"At 3.30 p.m. we had done well and thought we had the gap and were through. I still think so but the order came to withdraw to the Ridge again.

Montgomery had gone to bed at his usual early time, satisfied that the armored divisions of 10th Corps were acting according to his plan. Chief of Staff Freddie de Guingand did not share this confidence and stayed up to monitor the situation. Reports from wireless traffic and liaison officers convinced de Guingand that the armored formations had abandoned their attempts to move forward of the infantry positions. Instead, it seemed that the armored corps commanders, with the exception of Currie, “favoured suspending the forward move and pulling back under cover of the ridge.” This was contrary to Montgomery’s orders. As Freyberg reported to Leese, his Corps Commander, early the next morning, the “Miteiriya Ridge situation is rapidly becoming one of static warfare.” The New Zealand official historian wrote of the armored divisions’ refusal to follow Montgomery’s orders at this time:

"The armour was perpetuating the tradition, established by General Gott (under whom both Lumsden and Gatehouse had served) of giving lip service to the plans but holding to a determination to run the armoured battle its own way. "

Montgomery hated having his sleep disturbed and had given strict instructions only to be woken in emergencies. De Guingand felt that he had one now, so at 0300 hours on October 25, he roused Montgomery. De Guingand explained the situation and that he had called the corps commanders in to see Montgomery at 0330 hours that morning. Montgomery made no comment about his disturbed slumber and readily approved de Guingand’s actions.

Despite 0330 hours being “not a good time to hold a conference,” de Guingand regarded its outcome as the “first stepping stone” to victory. Montgomery was cheerful and asked his corps commanders to report their actions. De Guingand recalled that there was “a certain ‘atmosphere’ present” that required “careful handling.” This was especially true for Lumsden, who was “obviously not very happy about the role his armour had been given.” Montgomery again stressed the importance to his plan of the armor being out beyond the infantry positions. Montgomery was surprised when Lumsden asked him to pass this on to Gatehouse personally by telephone which he did. It led Montgomery to conclude that, “The real trouble is that LUMSDEN is frightened of GATEHOUSE and won’t give him firm orders.” Montgomery stressed to both Gatehouse and Lumsden that the armor must fight its way forward and that he would not permit any departure from his plan. Montgomery also threatened to remove any commander who was not prepared to do their part. Both de Guingand and Leese felt that this early morning conference was one of the battle’s key turning points. De Guingand wrote of it :

“I remember the reaction his words had on me. They were a tonic, and we felt not only that these orders would stand, but that there was no possible question that the plan could fail. The firm decision to make no change in the plan at that moment was a brave one, for it meant accepting considerable risks and casualties. Unless it had been made I am firmly convinced that the attack might well have fizzled out, and the full measure of success we achieved might never have been possible. The meeting broke up with no one in any doubt as to what was in the Commander’s mind.”

The meeting was dramatic and certainly important but it did little to change the mindset or behavior of the armored commanders. That very morning, Lumsden visited Freyberg at the New Zealand Division’s headquarters and lectured Freyberg on the use of armor. According to Lumsden:

“Playing with armour is like playing with fire. You have to take your time about it. It is like a duel. If you don’t take your time you will get run through the guts. It is not for tanks to take on guns.”

But early on the morning of October 25, with some positive reports being received from the armored divisions, Montgomery believed that the immediate crisis had passed. “It is a good thing I was firm with LUMSDEN and GATEHOUSE last night,” he recorded in his diary. But at around 1030 hours, the painful truth dawned on Montgomery. He learned that the 1st Armoured Division was not on Pierson nor had 10th Armoured Division advanced beyond Miteiriya Ridge. “The armoured shield” Montgomery believed was in front of his infantry, “did not, in reality, exist.” This was the real crisis of the battle and it needed firm action. Montgomery, with “his battle plan unravelling before his eyes,” set off for a meeting with his senior commanders at the New Zealand Division’s headquarters.

At the meeting, Montgomery asked Freyberg what he thought should happen next. Freyberg, with no faith in any armor not under infantry command, advised Montgomery to put in another large infantry attack. Freyberg said :

“I urged him [Montgomery] to put in another timed bombardment with infantry attacking as before to a depth of about 4000 yards to push him off his guns…. The armour would then have to fight. Thought it was better to face another 500 casualties to each Division and use our guns which is our great asset to whack him.”

Freyberg’s rationale, which he explained to the officers of the New Zealand Division that afternoon and probably to Montgomery earlier, was based on his recent excursions across the battlefield. Freyberg had come to the view that:

“From what I have seen I think the days of armour are rapidly passing. The 88 mm has almost paralysed the armour—they say they have an even chance in the moonlight.”

Montgomery rejected Freyberg’s suggestion for a second Lightfoot style infantry attack as he had no reserve available to launch one. But a seed had been planted. According to Niall Barr, Freyberg’s suggestion “eventually grew into Operation Supercharge.”

With his original plan in disarray and no fresh infantry assault possible, Montgomery was forced to alter his plan, which he did after this conference. This was “the first major change, indeed turning point, of the battle.” The New Zealanders would not conduct crumbling operations to the southwest from Miteiriya Ridge. These would probably be “too costly” for any benefit they achieved. Instead, the 10th Armoured Division would hand over a brigade to the 1st Armoured Division in the north and withdraw from the battlefield. The 1st Armoured Division was then to keep trying to break through the minefields and get onto their original objective. The main crumbling attacks would now be made by the 9th Australian Division and would be directed northwards toward the coast. This was a switch in direction of 180 degrees, but the logic for it was compelling. For a start, it would keep the enemy guessing as to the main weight of the attack. Neither the South African nor the New Zealand Division was capable of fighting a protracted sustained battle of attrition. The New Zealanders had incurred just over 800 casualties since the opening night. This was “about a third of the fighting troops” involved and clearly such wastage could not be sustained. The 51st Highland Division had sustained almost half of Eighth Army’s casualties to date and was committed to trying to secure and hold an extensive frontage. It could not be expected to do more. This left the Australians, a tough, battle-hardened formation that had suffered few casualties to date and was still full of fight. They would need to be all this and more as the 9th Australian Division would now do most of the fighting in the battle in the days ahead. Montgomery’s change of plan meant that 9th Australian Division “would now face the toughest task of any division at Alamein: to fight northwards through the teeth of Axis resistance.” The Australians could also expect to attract the bulk of Axis armor in some vigorous counterattacks. Morshead was ordered to commence their crumbling operations toward the coast that night

*. *

Another factor that had persuaded Montgomery of the necessity of switching the direction of the attack was the lack of success of 13th Corps’ operation in the southern sector of the Alamein position. On the evening of October 24, two battalions of 44th Home Countries Division, under command of 7th Armoured Division, attempted to break through the second mine barrier, which had prevented the capture of Himeimat on the opening night. When the minefield had been breached, two armored regiments were to “sally out,” swing north and clear the front. Two infantry battalions was a totally inadequate force with which to unlock the Axis defenses in the south. Not only were the defenders of the Folgore Parachute Division and elements of the Ramcke Brigade fully alert to what was intended, observation posts on Himeimat could bring down fire on anything that moved on the flat below. The two infantry battalions, the 1/5th and 1/6th Queens from 131 Brigade, under cover of an artillery barrage, managed to clear two small gaps through the minefield but suffered heavy casualties. They were soon pinned down by heavy fire only 400 yards beyond the minefield. Heavy fire prevented the battalions’ support weapons reaching them and the failure of their wireless sets meant that the infantry could not call for artillery support. Two armored regiments that attempted to advance through the gaps “made perfect targets for the Axis gunners,” which had the gaps well covered and engaged the armor at close range. To add to the tragedy, some of the advancing British tanks missed the cleared gaps and ran onto the minefield. At daylight, the attack was called off and the hapless infantry had to remain pinned beyond the minefield, poorly dug in and exposed to enemy fire, for all of October 25. Losses for the night’s action were 350 men from the infantry battalions and 26 tanks. These tank losses convinced General Harding, 7th Armoured Division’s commander and under orders from Montgomery to keep his formation intact, that “[he] could not risk further losses.” This attack probably contributed to Rommel’s decision to delay the switch of 21st Panzer Division to the north for two more days, but it was an expensive way to do this. This action was the last attempt of 13th Corps to break through the Axis defenses in the south. From October 25, 13th Corps’ role was to carry out large-scale raids “to maintain the illusion of a threat” and to provide units and formations to those fighting further north when needed. Harding’s 7th Armoured Division was relieved by 44th Home Countries Division on the night of October 25 and was withdrawn into the Army’s reserve.

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The Battle for North Africa, El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II - Glyn Harper

There were two areas in which the British forces had established an absolute dominance over the Axis and which by October 25 were making significant contributions to the battle’s outcome. Without the air superiority of the DAF (Desert Air Force) , the battle could not have been fought. On October 24, the DAF flew a record 1,000 fighter and bomber sorties, most concentrated in the northern sector. On October 25 the number had fallen to a still impressive 660 sorties with more than 300,000 pounds of bombs being dropped on Luftwaffe landing grounds and Axis positions close to the front. The New Zealand official historian said of this air activity: “the Desert Air Force continued to prove that the air war had already been won.” On November 2, Rommel wrote to his wife that, “You can imagine how I feel. Air raid after air raid after air raid!” Reflecting on the battle, he recognized the vital role the DAF had played in it. “The second essential condition for an army to stand in battle,” he wrote, “is parity or at least something approaching parity in the air.” Without this parity, the enemy “can wage the battle of attrition from the air” and “intensive exploitation by the enemy of his air superiority gives rise to far-reaching tactical limitations for one’s own command.” Rommel had experienced these “far-reaching tactical limitations” first-hand. It also had, as an Australian after-action report acknowledged, “a marked effect on both our own and the enemy morale.”

The other area in which the battle was already won was with Eighth Army’s use of artillery. German reports repeatedly referred to the hammering they were receiving from it. An after-action secret report on the use of artillery noted that “Nearly all prisoners captured spoke of the great effect of our artillery fire.” Two Australian historians have described this artillery advantage as “clearly the Commonwealth force’s greatest asset.” They write that, “Abundantly supplied, centrally directed, and available immediately, it gave the infantry a decisive advantage over the enemy.” There is little doubt that Eighth Army’s artillery dominated the battlefield. As described in the previous chapter, General von Thoma told his fellow captive general that the artillery barrages were reminiscent of the “Great War” and that one of the first things he had to report to Rommel on October 26 was that “a great many” of the Axis anti-tank guns had been destroyed. Rommel later acknowledged that:

“The British artillery once again demonstrated its well-known excellence. A particular feature was its great mobility and tremendous speed of reaction to the needs of the assault troops.”

Conversely, while the Axis forces knew the position of Eighth Army’s artillery batteries and had superiority in both medium and heavy guns, they “made no use of these in any way to counter our Artillery.” The secret after-action report of the Royal Artillery concluded that the Axis artillery in this battle “was most inefficiently handled.” It noted too that: “There is no doubt that even before the battle, our artillery had achieved a moral superiority over the enemy’s artillery.” During the battle, for major actions, “no restriction was placed on ammunition.” Throughout the 12-day battle, Eighth Army’s 834 25-pounder guns fired more than one million rounds at the enemy. On average, each gun fired 102 rounds per day. The rate of fire of the medium guns was even higher: 133 rounds per gun, per day for the 4.5-inch guns and 157 for the 5.5-inch guns.56 The effect of this was “to give the Commonwealth infantry a curtain of steel available virtually on call.”

When combined with the efforts of the DAF, its effects were even greater. It affected the morale of both armies and was a constant feature throughout the battle. Little wonder that Rommel would write in despair to his wife towards the end of the battle that: “We’re simply being crushed by the enemy weight.” Throughout the days of the battle, it had been the DAF and the Eighth Army artillery that had done a fair proportion of the crushing of the Axis forces.

The shift of direction of the crumbling operations meant that the bulk of the fighting here would fall on 9th Australian Division. A summary of operations of the division recorded on October 25 that “‘Eating the guts’ to be continued by 30th Corps (9th Aust Div) attacking northwards to cut off the enemy in the north.” These would begin that night with an attack toward the coast by just two Australian battalions.

The main objective was to extend the current front to the north by capturing new ground beyond the current right flank. This included the feature Point 29, a slight rise in the desert terrain offering excellent observation over the Australian positions. Prior to the opening attack on October 23, “careful consideration” had been given to including Point 29 as an objective given its obvious tactical value. But Morshead felt that his infantry already had enough to do and that Point 29 would have to wait. It was, however, “selected as the first exploitation task.” It also included an enemy location known as the Fig Garden, which the Germans called the “Devil’s Garden.” Two battalions from the 26th Australian Brigade would be used. In the first phase of the attack, 2/48 Battalion would set off just after midnight to capture the area around Point 29. Forty minutes later, the 2/24th Battalion would advance and capture the Fig Garden from the southeast. Both battalions had only a few hours to prepare for their attack, which had to be done while under artillery and mortar fire. Though artillery support for the attack could be provided, it “would have to be done without the assistance of or threat of our own armd [armored] forces.” That all preparations were completed on time without a hitch indicated how professional and skillful the Australians had become. For Niall Barr, it was proof that 26 Australian Brigade “was now one of the most experienced and effective formations within Eighth Army.”

At dusk on October 25, the Australians had a stroke of luck when a German reconnaissance party was captured. Included among the prisoners were two senior field officers who had not had time to destroy the detailed sketch maps that showed the tracks through their minefields being used. This intelligence coup and the lavish artillery support provided to the attacking infantry were invaluable. However, the Australian infantry still had a hard fight ahead of them.

At midnight on October 25, the two leading companies of 2/48 Battalion crossed their start line and advanced 900 yards to the first objective. With artillery from six field and two medium regiments firing on known enemy positions, the infantry still had “to fight every inch of the way” to reach it. When it had been taken, ten Bren-gun carriers packed with infantry and towing anti-tank guns raced toward Point 29 along the cleared laneways shown in the captured maps. They arrived on the high ground of Point 29 nine minutes later, just as the artillery barrage was lifted onto the next target. “The enemy was greatly surprised. Our men killed with great determination,” recorded the Battalion’s War Diary. The stunned German defenders put up a brief resistance before Point 29 was taken. Attempts to extend the position northward, though, met with stiff opposition. Losses in 2/48 Battalion had been heavy and the exhausted battalion was relieved by 2/17 Battalion the next morning. Australian engineers also arrived to strengthen the minefields around the new positions.

The attack by 2/24 Australian Battalion met with less success. The Battalion’s infantry strength was already “heavily depleted” before the attack. Only two of the Battalion’s four companies could muster more than sixty men. After an advance of 800 yards, the battalion encountered a web of strong enemy positions that had not been previously detected. The delay clearing these meant that the infantry fell behind their artillery support. The first objective was taken and three companies pushed on to reach the final objective. While the Fig Garden was captured, it could not be held against the intense close-range fire being poured into the position. Its War Diary recorded a tense situation: “Casualties were so hy [heavy] however and opposition so strong … the CO … after reviewing situation decided to withdraw.” The battalion withdrew about 1,000 yards and consolidated on the new ground it captured. With more than 100 killed and wounded that night, the battalion’s War Diary recorded that it “sustained many casualties.”

The Australian attack was a successful limited assault and had advanced its position “some 2000 yards … North towards the sea.” It had certainly “crumbled” some of the opposition facing them. The attack on the night of October 25 had secured “a valuable area of ground … from which crumbling operations could continue.” The capture of a key position like Point 29 was also significant. It was bound to provoke serious counterattacks from Panzerarmee, who knew its importance. As the War Diary of the 2/48th Battalion recorded on the morning of October 26:

“The value of Trig 29 as an OP is more than ever realised by us now as it has a range of vision of 4000 to 5000 yds in all directions. The enemy too realises this and it is receiving considerable attention from the enemy arty.”

Its capture also drew Rommel’s attention to the northern sector as Montgomery intended it should. Rommel was convinced that Montgomery intended to break through not just in the northern sector, “but actually on the very right flank of 8th Army line.” This “magnetism of the north” became entrenched in his mind. It was “a conclusion from which he hardly budged during the rest of the battle.”

The Australians were not the only part of 30th Corps in action on October 25–26. Helping to direct Rommel’s eyes north were the actions taken by the 51st (Highland) Division, who were still struggling to take their first night’s objectives. They had been held up for two days now by three enemy strong points that had so far eluded capture. On the night of October 25, the Highlanders had three battalions in action with the task of reaching its final objective of October 23 across the entire divisional front. In the north, the 1st Gordons were to advance to the Aberdeen/Kidney Ridge feature. In the center, the 5th Black Watch were ordered to take the strongpoint labeled “Stirling,” while to the south, the 7th Argylls took another, codenamed “Nairn.” In many ways, the attack by the Highland battalions mirrored that of the Australians. After “Stirling” was pounded by the entire Division’s artillery for three hours, the 5th Black Watch attacked to find “Stirling” filled with “dead and dying Germans.” “Stirling” was easily taken and the position reinforced by the addition of twenty anti-tank guns and a squadron of 50 RTR. But “Nairn” proved a tougher prospect. As the 7th Argylls approached it, they came under heavy machine gun and mortar fire. The position was eventually taken and the survivors consolidated on the reverse slope of the objective. Losses had been so heavy, though, that the two companies that had assaulted the position had to be combined into a composite force. In the north, only the troublesome Aberdeen/Kidney Ridge feature remained in enemy hands. The 1st Gordons had been forced to attack the feature without artillery support and had committed just a company-and-a-half to the assault. Setting off an hour before the Australian attack started, the Gordons met “unexpected opposition,” which brought their advance to a sudden halt. But the 51st (Highland) Division was now in possession of its final objective, the Blue Line, and “just as importantly, the tanks of 2 Armoured Brigade could now take hull-down positions along the entire line of the ‘northern ridge.’” It was a small but important gain. Equally significant was the fact that the Highlanders’ attempts to capture Aberdeen/Kidney Ridge had also caught Rommel’s attention.

October 26 was a day of frustration for both sides. Rommel launched several counterattacks against the Australians at Point 29, but they were all broken up by the crushing superiority of Eighth Army’s artillery. Each group of German or Italian soldiers seeking to assemble for a counterattack attracted attention from at least four artillery regiments. Rommel complained that “Rivers of blood were poured out over miserable strips of land which, in normal times, not even the poorest Arab would have bothered his head about.” Such concerns had never bothered Rommel when he was winning. As early as October 24, Lumsden had warned that if the battle became static it “just fizzles out.” Two days later, it looked as if this was happening. Freyberg warned his infantry brigadiers that morning the “best chance is to push on in the North.” He added :

We have to be clear that the advance to this present position will not win the War…. If the pressure is kept up he is bound to crack.

Two decisions were made on October 26 that were to have a direct bearing on the outcome of the battle. First, at a meeting of his corps commanders at Morshead’s headquarters, Montgomery declared a change in policy. Operation Lightfoot “had not achieved all that had been hoped of it.” The deployment of the armor beyond 30th Corps’ bridgehead “had not gone well” and the crumbling operations were well behind schedule. And already Eighth Army had suffered 6,140 casualties. This was so high that “Montgomery saw that he would have to go carefully with his infantry.” 30th Corps, which had incurred almost 5,000 of these casualties, needed a short break so that it could rest and reorganize. It was not to carry out major operations for the next few days. Instead, the 9th Australian Division was to renew its attack in the north on the night of October 28, while the rest of 30th Corps prepared for major operations later. It would be regrouped to create a reserve with which to restore the momentum of the offensive. That afternoon, Montgomery conferred with his artillery commander, General Sidney Kirkman, and was relieved to learn that Eighth Army had enough ammunition on hand to continue the fight for ten days.

That afternoon, Rommel also made a critical decision. It was clear that 13th Corps’ operations in the south posed no real threat. To Rommel “it was now obvious that the enemy would make his main effort in the north during the next few days and try for a decision there.” Accordingly, Rommel ordered 21st Panzer Division and half his artillery units in the south to move to the northern sector. It was a calculated risk, as Rommel “fully realised that the petrol shortage would not allow it [21 Panzer] to return.” Enigma intercepts soon informed Montgomery that 21st Panzer and artillery units were moving north and were instructed to be ready “for a possible counterattack towards the east.” That evening, 1st Armoured Division established itself north and south of Kidney Ridge, providing a valuable link with the Australians. It confirmed, in Rommel’s mind, that this northern sector was indeed where Eighth Army was making its main effort.

On the night of October 26, both the New Zealand and South African Divisions carried out minor actions to reach their original final objectives. Despite some “lively” enemy opposition, the final objectives were gained by daylight on October 27. A counterattack launched by the Axis at 0900 hours the same day encountered the tanks of 9th Armoured Brigade forward of the New Zealand infantry. In the brief skirmish that followed, nine German tanks were destroyed. There were no further counterattacks on the New Zealanders or South Africans that day, although both divisions were subjected to heavy artillery fire and air attacks throughout the morning. This move to straighten the line and reach the final objectives of October 23 was preparatory to the New Zealanders being withdrawn from their positions on Miteiriya Ridge.

On October 27, around Kidney Ridge, “one of the most gallant actions of the desert war” occurred, which was to have “a great effect on the enemy.” Nearly a mile to the northwest of Kidney Ridge, and about the same distance to the southwest, were two localities that became strong centers of enemy resistance. These were known as “Woodcock” and “Snipe.” Rommel, having taken over command of Panzer Army the previous evening, recognized that Kidney Ridge was a vital feature and launched his main counterattack here to drive the British armor from it. The action commenced at first light and continued most of the day. At 1600 hours, Rommel launched an all-out assault using all four of his armored divisions and the 90th Light Division. In addition, “every artillery and anti-aircraft gun we had in the northern sector concentrated a violent fire on the point of the intended attack.”87 The battle was confusing and deadly. One unit of 1 Armoured Division, the 2nd Rifle Brigade (it was actually not a brigade but a battalion of light infantry), was left isolated and exposed on the feature “Snipe,” to the southwest of Kidney Ridge, for most of the day. One rifleman recalled that, from the private soldiers’ point of view, “the scene was one of utter confusion and mayhem,” where every tank and gun barrel in the Panzerarmee “was directed towards them.” The 2nd Rifle Brigade held the position until 2100 hours, when its depleted numbers forced it to withdraw. Of the nineteen anti-tank guns it had used during the day, only one was left undamaged. While the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade lost about one-third of the men who fought on “Snipe” and most of their vehicles and guns, an official investigation credited them with destroying thirty-two tanks and five German self-propelled guns. The action was described by the Rifle Brigades’ history as “the most famous of the Regiment’s war.” The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Turner, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his and the battalion’s gallantry on October 27. Axis tank losses around Kidney Ridge on this day amounted to forty-seven. These were devastating losses for Rommel, who recorded that, “we suffered considerable losses and were obliged to withdraw.” He also came to an ominous conclusion from this action on October 27 :

“It was obvious from now on the British would destroy us bit by bit, since we were virtually unable to move on the battlefield. As yet, Montgomery had only thrown half his striking force into the battle.”

Rommel would have been even more alarmed had he known that Montgomery was, on this fateful day, developing a new plan to put more of his strike force into the battle.

On the evening of October 26, Montgomery had taken the decision that the battle must not be allowed to “fizzle” or end in stalemate. Instead, Eighth Army must “regroup and reposition, with a view to creating fresh reserves for further offensive action.” This was a tacit admission that the current battle had stalled and that 30th Corps could not transition from the break-in to the break-out. In other words, Montgomery’s original plan had failed and he needed to try something different. He later wrote that October 26 and 27 was “the most critical time in the battle.” While the fighting had been intense, “the momentum of our attacks was diminishing.” The essential task now was to create a reserve that could be used to deliver a knockout blow when the time was right to do so. To create this reserve on the night of October 27, the 2nd New Zealand Division was withdrawn from Miteiriya Ridge. The New Zealand artillery regiments, however, moved north into the Australian sector, where they supported the Australian crumbling operations planned for the next three days. The attached 9th Armoured Brigade moved with the infantry into reserve. The New Zealand sector was taken over by 1st South African Division while 4th Indian Division moved into the position vacated by the South Africans. Freyberg described the move as “a general side-slip” and reported that it “was completed without incident.” Also moved into reserve were the armored formations of 10th Corps less 1st Armoured Division, which would come under command of 30th Corps. The 7th Armoured Division of 13th Corps was warned to be prepared to move north and 13th Corps was informed that several of its infantry brigades would also be needed to bolster the reserve force being created. To keep Rommel’s attention riveted to the north and his forces “off balance,” the Australian crumbling operations were to be not only continued, but considerably intensified. Niall Barr described these moves as “the reshuffling of the existing pack of cards,” while Stephen Bungay called it a “change to the bits on his drill.” It was a decisive change in plan and marked, as Barr has written, “Montgomery’s firm grasp of the dynamics of operational command.”

In London, however, Montgomery’s regrouping and repositioning was not taken as an indication of his operational command skills. Indeed, it had the reverse effect on Churchill and Anthony Eden and both men became convinced that Montgomery was allowing the battle to peter out. Montgomery alluded to this when he wrote that creating his new reserve “gave to some the impression that I had decided that we could not break through the enemy and was giving up. Imperial Chief of Staff Field Marshal Alan Brooke, later 1st Viscount Alanbrooke, had a very difficult task convincing them otherwise. He recalled :

“When I went to see Winston, having been sent for from the COS meeting, I was met by a flow of abuse of Monty. What was my Monty doing now, allowing the battle to peter out (Monty was always my Monty when he was out of favour!). He had done nothing now for the last three days, and now he was withdrawing troops from the front. Why had he told us he would be through in seven days if all he intended to do was to fight a half-hearted battle? Had we not got a single general who could even win one single battle? etc, etc. When he stopped to regain his breath I asked him what had suddenly influenced him to arrive at these conclusions. He said that Anthony Eden had been with him last night and that he was very worried with the course the battle was taking, and that neither Monty nor Alex was gripping the situation and showing a true offensive spirit. The strain of the battle had had its effect on me, the anxiety was growing more and more intense each day and my temper was on edge. I felt very angry with Eden and asked Winston why he consulted his Foreign Secretary when he wanted advice on strategic and tactical matters. He flared up and asked whether he was not entitled to consult whoever he wished! To which I replied he certainly could, provided he did not let those who knew little about military matters upset his equilibrium. He continued by stating that he was dissatisfied with the course of the battle and would hold a COS meeting under his Chairmanship at 12.30 to be attended by some of his colleagues.”

At the Chief of Staff meeting, backed by South African statesman General Jan Smuts, Brooke was able to convince the chiefs that Montgomery was simply preparing for the next phase of the battle, which would be another strike at the Panzer Army. No one present at the meeting was aware that Brooke also had serious doubts of his own about Montgomery’s then-unproven generalship. Brooke concluded his notes about this Chief of Staff meeting with a frank admission :

“Personally however I was far from being at peace. I had my own doubts and my own anxieties as to the course of events, but these had to be kept entirely to myself. On returning to my office I paced up and down, suffering from a desperate feeling of loneliness. I had, during the morning’s discussion, tried to maintain an exterior of complete confidence. It had worked, confidence had been restored. I had then told them what I thought Monty must be doing, and I knew Monty well, but there was still just the possibility that I was wrong and that Monty was beat. The loneliness of those moments of anxiety, when there is no one one can turn to, have to be lived through to realize their intense bitterness.”

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The Battle for North Africa, El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II - Glyn Harper

From October 28, it was left largely to the Australians in the northern sector to maintain the initiative and to carry the fight to Panzer Army. With the exception of the 9th Australian Division in the north, the offensive closed down across the front. This was done to allow Montgomery to concentrate on preparing what he hoped would be the knock-out blow. Accordingly, he issued the Australians with a “brief direction to ‘Attack North.’” The 9th Australian Division, now reinforced with additional artillery, had the unenviable task of keeping Rommel’s attention focused in the north by continuing their crumbling operations. The second set-piece attack was planned for the night of October 28.

The artillery barrage that opened the Australian attack toward the coast on the night of October 28 was particularly heavy. The German 90th Light Division, on the receiving end of it, recorded in its War Diary that “the northern sector was under a barrage reminiscent of Great War days. The horizon was ablaze with the flashes of enemy guns.” Panzerarmee’s Battle Report described the barrage as “the heaviest artillery fire which had so far been experienced.” Under the protection of the artillery, two infantry battalions from 20th Australian Infantry Brigade set off at 2200 hours in the first phase of the attack. Both battalions had to pass through the congested bottleneck of Point 29, where accurate Axis artillery fire caused casualties. One battalion, the 2/15th Australian Battalion , lost both its commanding officer and its adjutant to this shelling. Despite this, the 2/15th Battalion, on the left flank of the attack, pressed on towards its objective some 3,000 yards to the north. It met light opposition and encountered no minefields, reaching the objective with light casualties. After midnight, its support weapons and sappers arrived to lay mines and dig in. The Battalion buried eighty-nine Italians killed in the assault and took a further 130 Italians prisoner.

On the right flank, the 2/13th Australian Battalion, heading for the Fig Garden, had a tougher time. The Battalion was so understrength that its companies, averaging just thirty-five exhausted men, could not cover more than 100 yards of front during the attack. But the infantry made excellent progress and reached the Fig Garden, some 2,500 yards northeast from their start line, just after midnight. The Fig Garden had been heavily mined and booby trapped and 2/13th Battalion lost more men to these than from enemy fire. Mopping up isolated German machine posts also caused casualties. The next day, the Battalion was firmly established in the Fig Garden but the strength of its four rifle companies had dwindled to approximately 100 men. It was being commanded by the senior surviving officer, a captain.

All three battalions from 26th Australian Infantry Brigade were allocated tasks that night. They were depending on 2/23 Battalion, the first in action, reaching and securing its objective of the railway line and the main road from where the other two battalions could exploit. The second phase of the attack commenced at 2340 hours when 2/23 Battalion and tanks from the 46th Royal Tank Regiment moved off. This phase of the attack was an absolute disaster. As the infantry had such a long distance to travel, they were mounted in bren gun carriers and on the Valentine tanks of 46 RTR. But the briefings for the operation had been rushed and none of the tank commanders had gone forward to reconnoiter the gaps in the start line. Inevitably, the tanks of 46 RTR ran onto the Australian minefields, causing complete chaos and alerting the enemy to what was happening. It took more than an hour to reorganize and when the tanks finally set off through the cleared laneways, they were fired on by the Axis anti-tank guns enfilading the gaps. “It was bloody chaos,” recalled one Australian infantryman who was there. “You couldn’t see for dust and there were dead and wounded everywhere.” The Battalion’s War Diary recorded an “extremely confused situation” that night. Despite being under fire from three sides, the Battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Bernard Evans, was able to organize one limited counterattack on the most dangerous German strongpoint, which captured the post, 160 prisoners, and six anti-tank guns. That was the limit of 2/23 Battalion’s success and it suffered twenty-nine killed in action, 172 wounded, and another six soldiers missing. The battalion dug in on ridges about 900 yards from the start line, having captured 162 prisoners from 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. 46 RTR had also suffered heavy casualties, including its commanding officer and all of its squadron leaders. Only seven of its original forty tanks remained battle-worthy, so that “the regiment had almost ceased to exist.” Wisely, the third phase of the operation involving 2/24 and 2/48 Battalions was postponed as the dawn approached, “much to the relief of the waiting infantry” who “trudged back to their slit trenches for some sleep.”

This attack, although it failed, captured more ground for the Australians, inflicted heavy casualties on the Axis, especially on the German 90th Light Division, and “disrupted and confused the Axis defence.” It was this attack on October 28–29 that finally convinced Rommel he was fighting a losing battle. Describing the weight of this attack as “something quite exceptional,” Rommel recorded his bleak outlook that night:

“No one can conceive the extent of our anxiety during this period. That night I hardly slept and by 0300 hours [29 October] was pacing up and down turning over in my mind the likely course of the battle, and the decisions I might have to take. It seemed doubtful whether we would be able to stand up much longer to attacks of the weight which the British were now making, and which they were in any case still able to increase. It was obvious to me that I dared not await the decisive breakthrough but would have to pull out to the west before it came.”

The next day, he unburdened his deepest fears in a letter to his wife:

“The situation continues very grave. By the time this letter arrives, it will no doubt have been decided whether we can hold on or not. I haven’t much hope left.At night I lie with my eyes wide open, unable to sleep, for the load that is on my shoulders. In the day I’m dead tired.What will happen if things go wrong here? That is the thought that torments me day and night. I can see no way out if that happens.”

His signals to Kesselring in Rome, and soon in the Allies’ hands in London and Cairo, described an “extremely critical situation” on October 28. The next day, the situation had not improved. It was communicated as being “grave in the extreme.”

On October 29, three counterattacks by tanks and infantry of German Battlegroup 200 struck at the Australian infantry on their new positions. All three were driven off by the overwhelming defensive artillery fire protecting the Australians. The Battlegroup suffered heavy losses in these counterattacks. Four successive attacks launched by German 90 Light Division against the 2/15th Battalion’s position over October 29–30 suffered the same fate. Rommel’s forces were being steadily crumbled away, but the Australians were also suffering in the process.

The last of the Australian crumbling operations occurred on the night of October 30. This was to be a larger operation than the previous two and it required careful planning. It was divided into four phases. In the first phase, the 2/32nd Battalion was to capture the main road and railway that had eluded 26th Australian Infantry Brigade in its previous attack. Its main objective was a small hill just south of the road labeled B11 on maps, but which the soldiers called Barrel Hill because of a navigation beacon on it. The Battalion was to hold a position marked by Barrel Hill near the road and the “Blockhouse” near the railway line. It was to provide a secure base for the other battalions in the subsequent phases of the operation. In the second phase, 2/24 and 2/48 Battalions were to follow this first attack, advance east, and capture the main enemy defenses astride the coast road. The 2/48th Battalion was to advance to the north of the main road while 2/24 advanced in parallel south of it. When 2/48 Battalion reached Ring Contour 25, it was to attack due north and take the feature known as “Cloverleaf” near the coast. At the same time, 2/24 Battalion was to attack due south to take the troublesome feature known as “Thompson’s Post.” This would complete Phase 3 of the operation. In the final phase, the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion, fighting now as infantry, was to launch an attack from Barrel Hill toward the coast with the intention of cutting off the entire 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. Although 40th RTR was to be in support, the initial attack was to be made without tank support. There would, however, be 360 guns available in support firing on known enemy positions and providing a protective barrage during Phase 1.

It was a “complicated and ambitious” plan, one that asked too much of infantry battalions weakened and worn out from seven days of constant action. Niall Barr has criticized the plan for “expecting too much of the Australian soldiers.” With the 2/24th and 2/48th Battalions being required to make advances of nearly 10,000 yards, Barr is certainly correct. Moreover, the plan “hinged on sequential actions of individual battalions rather than their combined effort.” Australian historians Johnston and Stanley concur, noting that an attack down the main road was not only unnecessary given that the breakthrough attack would occur to the south, but that it “was bound to stretch to breaking point the resources of the depleted battalions allotted to it.”

The attack began at 2200 hours and it is hardly surprising that events did not go according to plan. The opening barrage was again impressive. Montgomery recorded in his diary that “The attack of 9th Aust Div went in under a terrific artillery fire. My caravan in my Tactical H.Q. shook all night.” The 2/32nd Battalion was to lead the attack. It was relatively fresh but 250 men short of its established strength. Congestion on the start line delayed 2/32 Battalion’s start so that they lost the effects of the creeping barrage. As a result, 2/32 Battalion had to fight its way forward against an enemy now alert to what was happening. Reasonable progress was made until the battalion reached Barrel Hill. A determined attack captured the position and 175 German prisoners. Soon after its capture, though, the battalion’s commanding officer was wounded and the weakened companies could not mop up the strong enemy posts surrounding them. These would cause considerable problems for the follow up battalions in Phase 2. The Blockhouse, a railway hut being used by the Germans as an aid post, was also captured.

The steep railway embankment proved to be a formidable obstacle, too. It was more than twelve feet high and the bulldozer that had been brought forward to cut a gap in it was disabled on a mine. The engineers accompanying 2/32 Battalion finally blew a gap in the embankment, but it took three hours of exhausting digging by fifty men with entrenching tools to clear away the sand and rubble. The gap that had been cut attracted considerable fire. It was, however, used until daylight when it became too dangerous to keep using it.

On the morning of October 31, 2/32 Battalion had two rifle companies north of the railway and covering the road from the slopes of Barrel Hill. Two more were south of the railway and facing west. Support weapons had reached them so that the base was reasonably secure. It was, however, surrounded by enemy positions.

Phase 2 of the operation began less than half an hour later with 2/48 and 2/24 Battalions following the path of 2/32 Battalion. Their progress was delayed by congestion en route and by the numerous enemy posts that had not been mopped up. The 2/48th Battalion found these delays “annoying factors that could have been eliminated if the orders issued by higher authorities had been obeyed by the people concerned.” The 2/48th Battalion reached its forming-up point at the railway embankment near the blockhouse but recorded in its War Diary that the position was “far from stabilised and enemy resistance was encountered at almost every step.” The Battalion set off at zero hour supported by an artillery barrage that “lacked the accuracy which characterised its previous support.” Its War Diary recorded that the men had a stiff fight, as “strong opposition was met and every inch of the way had to be fought for.”

The attacking battalions soon lost the support of the artillery ­barrage—a serious development given their weakened strengths and now facing alerted defenders behind strong defensive positions. Both battalions pushed against increasingly strong opposition.

On the left flank, south of the road, 2/24 Battalion met very determined opposition. It struggled to keep advancing; however, with the help of a platoon from 2/48 Battalion, it managed to reach within 700 yards of the final objective. But with companies greatly reduced in strength, one to just six men, the battalion could not remain in the open. “Intense opposition was encountered … Very hy casualties were suffered,” recorded its War Diary. Thompson’s Post, despite rumors that it had been abandoned by the enemy, “was still strongly held.” With daylight approaching, the decision was made to withdraw the remnants of the battalion back to 2/32 Battalion’s position south of the railway and dig in facing west.

On the right, north of the road, 2/48 Battalion had an identical experience but managed to capture its first objective. Its losses were heavy and further progress was impossible. The Battalion’s War Diary recorded a hard decision reached by its commanding officer. “After careful consideration at 0530 hours the CO decided to move the Bn which now consisted of 41 men, back to a firm base to an area just East of the 2/32 Bn.”

With fewer than 400 men and limited artillery support, 2/24 and 2/48 Battalions had cut a swath through the strongest Axis positions about two miles in length and half a mile wide. They had captured more than 250 Germans as well as a “veritable arsenal” of weapons. But the cost had been high, with two “superb battalions … all but destroyed” in the process.

Despite the fact that Phase 2 and 3 of the operation had not gone well, Phase 4 continued. The 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion formed up in the congested 2/32 Battalion secure area and set off toward the coast ten minutes behind schedule at 0430 hours, with dawn not far away. The battalion, required to make an advance of 2,900 yards, at first met little opposition. The first objective, 1,500 yards from the start line, was easily captured along with eighty prisoners. Here, C Company dug in while D Company passed through the position ready to advance to the final 1,400 yards to the coast. When D Company set off, a different problem confronted them. The supporting artillery barrage ahead of them was not lifting as it should have. To advance through would have caused many and unnecessary casualties. With daylight approaching, the company dug in 200 yards forward of the first objective and still 1,200 yards from the sea.

Dawn on October 31 found “the situation of the 26th Australian Brigade” to be “somewhat obscure.” It was an accurate statement. The situation was not helped by “the pall of dust and smoke” that hung over the battlefield. The 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion was the most vulnerable and had secured a salient that the Australian official historian described as a “brittle wedge.” In the morning, the heavy fire of the German defenders, especially from mortars, made it clear the battalion could not remain where it was. It withdrew toward the secure base provided by 2/32 Battalion. One company dug in around Barrel Hill, the other two dug in south of the railway line.

Cluttered around Barrel Hill, the Blockhouse, and the gap in the railway embankment on the morning of October 31 were the remnants of three infantry and one pioneer battalion. Of these, only the 2/32nd Battalion was near the position envisaged in the original plan. It was holding a line running south from Barrel Hill to the railway. In the southern edge of the new position, holding two positions south of the railway line were the remnants of 2/24 Battalion. Its strength had been reduced to one officer and eighty-four men. To the north, 300 yards east of Barrel Hill, with one post north of the railway line, was located what remained of 2/48 Battalion. It was down to just two officers and forty-one men. To the men of 2/32 Battalion, surveying their new location at dawn, the new position resembled a giant saucer. It was called the “Saucer” thereafter.

While this last crumbling operation had failed to attain its objectives, it had maintained pressure on Rommel in the north and certainly held his attention. On the morning of October 31, he mistakenly believed that the Australians, with British armor, had “forced their way through to the coast and cut off the 125th Infantry Regiment.” He described the Axis position to his wife that morning as being “very grave again.” He gave orders to launch an immediate counterattack using dive bombers and all the artillery they could muster.

The Australian attack on the night of October 30 has been described as the “climax” of their involvement in the battle of El Alamein. This was true in one sense, as the actions that night “were the last and perhaps most desperate Australian attacks of the battle.” Yet “climax” implies an ending, and the period following being of less intense activity. For the Australians, this was far from the case. From October 31 until the battle ended, “the Australians would have to defend, in order to hold their gains against everything the Germans could direct against them.” The Saucer became the site of some of the most desperate fighting of the battle. For the next three days, Rommel’s main effort was committed to ejecting the Australians from the Saucer position. Reporting on the actions of November 1, General Morshead , 9th Australian Division commander informed General Blamey in Australia that :

“One of the most determined attacks ever made against 9th Aust Div was launched at 1215 HRS. It was by inf and tanks against 24th Bde and came from three directions NE, north and NW. The issue was not decided until night and it was not until midnight that it actually ceased.”

These counterattacks cost both sides dearly. For the Australians, it “stretched [them] to the limit. Too much had been demanded of them by Montgomery and their own divisional commander.”

On October 31, Freyberg had informed the New Zealand Prime Minister that “your Division has stood the test of a most exacting battle and morale of the men is excellent.” Such praise was equally applicable to the Australians fighting around the Saucer. Despite the hard conditions and their mounting casualties, their morale, even during the most testing of times, remained “clearly high.” For the Germans, believing that Eighth Army was massing in “the northern sector for a decisive attack,” these actions absorbed the Axis’ precious resources and concentrated their strength here, leaving the rest of their frontline positions vulnerable. It also caused them many “sad losses,” as Panzerarmee’s strength was being steadily eroded. “We pressed forward slowly, but we had heavy losses,” recalled General von Thoma immediately after the battle. When Rommel came forward on the afternoon of November 1, von Thoma recalled that “things were very bad up there and he saw it for himself.”

The American military commander Lieutenant General George S. Patton believed that successful military tactics followed a simple formula. He wrote in his diary on November 2, 1942, that while strategy should be a “steamroller” affair, tactics required more finesse. Patton wrote:

“But in tactics do not steamroller. Attack weakness. Hold them by the nose and kick them in the pants.”

The nose/pants analogy was one Patton used many times in his writings. Montgomery, whom Patton would unfortunately repeatedly describe as a “little fart,” had succeeded in the first part of Patton’s formula. The Australian crumbling operations had fixed Rommel’s attention and the cream of his forces in the north. Here Rommel was being held firmly by the nose while Montgomery prepared the knock-out blow. Montgomery now needed to strike where Rommel was weak. It was essential that he dispense a massive kick in the pants with all the force at his disposal.

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The Battle for North Africa, El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II - Glyn Harper


When it became clear to Montgomery that Operation Lightfoot had failed to achieve a breakthrough, he set to work on a new plan. Montgomery had been impressed with both Freyberg’s logic and his fighting spirit at the meeting held at the New Zealand Division’s Headquarters on Sunday, October 25. At this meeting Freyberg had:

“urged him [Montgomery] to put in another timed bombardment with infantry attacking as before to a depth of about 4000 yards to push him [Rommel] off his guns. They could have had the tanks following behind. We would have been clear of his minefields—the first attack very nearly achieved that. The armour would then have had to fight. Thought it was better to face another 500 casualties to each Division and use our gun which is our great asset to whack him.”

This became the essence of Montgomery’s plan for the breakout he called Operation Supercharge. He spent the morning of October 30 drafting his directive for this breakthrough attack before handing it over to his staff to work on the details. With characteristic immodesty, Montgomery wrote of its importance in his Memoirs: “This was the master plan and only the master could write it.”

The plan for Operation Supercharge was “in many respects a repetition of Lightfoot,” albeit on a much smaller scale. It relied on a concentrated timed artillery barrage with infantry brigades assaulting in the darkness to capture objectives some 4,000 yards from their start line. Following immediately behind would be the tanks of 9th Armoured Brigade, but again part of an infantry division commanded by Freyberg. They were to pave the way for support weapons to reach the infantry and for the heavy tanks of a complete armored division to follow. The 9th Armoured Brigade, with its 105 tanks, was to advance a further 2,000 yards beyond the final infantry objectives to the high ground marked by the Rahman track. This would create the initial hole from which an entire armored division could surge out beyond the newly won objectives, head due west, and destroy the enemy armored forces in the tank clash that was sure to follow. The new plan was succinctly summarized in Freyberg’s War Diary. It also expressed Freyberg’s doubt that the armored division would follow it :

"Attack to be 4000 yds front to depth of 4000 yds. Australians attacking tomorrow night. We do ours night afterwards. 12 Fd Regts in support and Armd Div as well as our own Armd Bde. 151 and Scottish Bde to attack—own Div behind and one Div of armour. “I” tanks to be on one side and armour on the other. Intention is to get right out beyond his defences and launch the armour who come up centre route. Armoured battle followed by NZ Div in buses to exploit. General: We can ask for what we want … It will be a slogging match.

Army commander said he would take his Tac HQ forward and lead the armour through himself if necessary."

The location of the new assault was just south of the Australians fighting on the coastal sector and slightly north of Kidney Ridge. Montgomery had wanted to do the attack “as Far North as possible” but was persuaded by de Guingand and others to adopt an axis of advance further south. De Guingand wrote, owing to the Australian’s crumbling operations: “The further north we went, the more Germans, mines and prepared defences we would meet.”

Montgomery’s plan envisaged the infantry being used as a “self-­replenishing battering ram” to force open a breach in the enemy’s position. The infantry would, however, have the protection of the Army’s effective artillery and could dig in once the objectives had been captured. The formation with the most difficult tasks and therefore most at risk was the 9th Armoured Brigade. As the first armored formation in action, it would need to provide protection for the infantry while taking on the Panzerarmee’s guns and tanks. It was a critical and dangerous assignment, which Montgomery clearly recognized. Freyberg recorded in both his War Diary and his secret after-action report, “The Army Commander was quite prepared to accept heavy losses in the 9th Armoured Brigade in order to get 1st Armoured Division through.” Accepting that 9th Armoured Brigade would take heavy casualties, Montgomery was confident of success. He wrote in his planning directive:

“This operation if successful will result in the complete disintegration of the enemy and will lead to his final destruction. It will therefore be successful…. SUPERCHARGE will win for us the victory.”

Montgomery warned in his directive that “determined leadership will be vital; complete faith in the plan, and its success, will be vital; there must be no doubters; risks must be accepted freely; there must be no ‘bellyaching.’”8 Not all commanders heeded Montgomery’s warning.

Montgomery entrusted command of Operation Supercharge to the person he regarded as his best battlefield commander: Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg. On October 28, Montgomery recorded in his diary: “Easily my best fighting Divisional commander is FREYBERG, and then MORSHEAD.” Four days later, Montgomery wrote to General Brooke and assessed all of his senior subordinate commanders. Montgomery wrote that Freyberg was:

“superb, and is the best fighting Div Comd commander I have ever known. He has no great brain power and could never command a Corps. But he leads his Division into battle going himself in front in a Honey (British nickname for Stuart tanks) tank.”

Niall Barr has written that it was “particularly apt” that Freyberg was chosen to organize and command this new breakthrough attempt. This was because it was Freyberg who had “originally suggested the idea of a further infantry attack.”

Morshead’s Australians were fully engaged, pinning the bulk of Panzer Army to the coastal sector. It was time for Freyberg and the 2nd New Zealand Division to be put back into the battle. But the weak New Zealand Division needed to be reinforced with infantry, armor, and artillery from elsewhere. The Corps commander, Lieutenant General Oliver Leese, wrote on Montgomery’s intent in using Freyberg and the New Zealanders: “The Army Commander decided to make use of General Freyberg’s magnetic personality and to employ the New Zealand Division as the background for the new attempt to break through.”

There was good reason to keep the New Zealanders in the “background” for Operation Supercharge. They were far too weak in infantry to mount another full-scale assault against the Axis line. When Freyberg had first suggested the idea on October 25, his two infantry brigadiers were aghast at the prospect and forcibly voiced their objections. Freyberg’s Diary recorded their protest:

Kippenberger: Another infantry attack means 5,000 yds at least—very hard to do. Must be regarded as serious as we can’t pin his positions as before. It is not a soft spot opposite us.

Gentry: Have we not to consider very carefully this further attack. Bns after similar casualties in another attack will be little more than coys. If we take them in again and lose 50% it would take a very long time to build up.

Kippenberger: The 5,000 reinforcements on the water are not the men to fill the gaps. I have had 11 Officers killed and they are all old hands. We have only 1,200 bayonets left.

Gentry: They are the survivors of god knows how many battles.

At this time, Freyberg overruled his brigadiers, believing that “it was better to face another 500 casualties to each Division and use our guns, which is our great asset, to whack him…. If the pressure is kept up he is bound to crack.” But when the pressure on the Panzerarmee eased with no new infantry attack possible in the short term, Freyberg had to accept that his brigadiers were right. On October 27, he wrote to Leese, informing him of the cost of using the New Zealanders in another infantry assault. Freyberg’s diary records:

Artmy commander wrote letter to Corps Comd re our casualties to infantry carrying the rifle and the Bren and pointing out that any further attacks would finish the 2nd New Zealand Division as a striking force while as it was it remained a powerful force for a mobile role.

Freyberg’s letter explained that since the battle commenced, the New Zealanders had suffered nearly 900 casualties with a further 800 men evacuated sick with jaundice. Its fighting strength as a result had been reduced to just 1,400 infantrymen. The New Zealanders were withdrawn from the line the following night.

Montgomery needed Freyberg to command Operation Supercharge and the expertise of the New Zealand Division staff to coordinate and direct it. His solution was to boost the New Zealanders with additional British formations. Montgomery recorded in his diary on October 28 that, “To keep the New Zealand Div. up to strength and to enable it to operate offensively British Inf Bdes in turn will be put into it.” While this was “an elegant and effective solution,” it was also somewhat ironic. As earlier chapters have shown, detaching brigades from their parent formation and sending them to fight alone or embedded in other organizations was anathema to both the Australians and New Zealanders. They had protested loudly about it in 1940–41 and then refused to allow these detachments from July 1942. But for Operation Supercharge in November 1942, it was the obvious solution and one offering the best prospects of success. And Montgomery had no intention of either fighting the detached formations as independent “Brigade Groups” or allowing the practice to became a standard operating procedure in his army. The temporary arrangement was an admission that Eighth Army was running short of infantry soldiers. General Alexander wrote that it was “an historical illusion” that Eighth Army had overwhelming strength during the battle. The battle, as anticipated, had been one of “gruelling attrition” and by October 29, “Eighth Army had reserve strength enough for only one last big push.” It was critical to get it right and this required some flexibility in arranging the assets that could do the job.

For Operation Supercharge, the New Zealanders again had under its command the 9th Armoured Brigade. This armored formation was to spearhead the breakthrough and so had “the highest priority for tank replacements.” Also joining the 9th Armoured Brigade under Freyberg’s command in the 2nd New Zealand Division were two British infantry brigades and an additional armored brigade to provide direct infantry support. The two British infantry brigades and 9th Armoured Brigade would do most of the fighting in the battle ahead. Detached from 50th Northumbrian Division of 13th Corps was 151st Infantry Brigade consisting of three battalions of Durham Light Infantry, while the 152th Infantry Brigade was detached from Wimberley’s 51st Highland Division. One New Zealand Brigade, the 6th NZ Brigade, was to play a limited static role in the attack but one battalion, the 28th (Maori) Battalion, which had been sparingly used to date, would be actively involved. Infantry attack would be supported by 23rd Armored Brigade infantry support tanks. Freyberg’s enhanced 2nd New Zealand Division was a powerful armored and infantry force ideally suited for the break-in role. It would need to be as Freyberg correctly anticipated that the battle ahead was going to be “a very tough slogging match.”

Artillery support would again provide the crucial edge to the attack. There was plenty of it, too. In addition to the New Zealanders’ own field artillery, that of 51st (Highland) Division, 1st Armoured Division, 10th Armoured Division, and one regiment of 9th Australian Division was placed under command of the New Zealand C.R.A. Two regiments of medium artillery were also added. This made a total of 296 field guns and forty-eight medium guns. Such a concentration of firepower enabled the New Zealand C.R.A. Brigadier Steve Weir to develop a comprehensive fire plan, one that could fully utilize the benefits of a creeping barrage. With the guns and ammunition at his disposal, “the creeping barrage came into its own” and has been described by Niall Barr as “Weir’s masterpiece.” When the attack commenced in the early hours of November 2, every gun of 30th Corps opened fire. In the space of four and a half hours, with “flashes like lightning” and the sound “merging into one tremendous rumble,” the gunners of 30th Corps “sent off 150,000 rounds along a 4000 yard front.” Those observing the barrage on November 2 “commented on the accuracy of the fire,” too.

Air support for Operation Supercharge was also impressive. On the night of November 1, sixty-eight RAF Wellington bombers flew over the Axis positions and bombed them for a period of seven hours. That night, the bombers dropped a total of 184 tons of bombs and managed to hit Afrika Korps’ headquarters. Not only was von Thoma, the Afrika Korps’ commander, injured in this bombing, but all telephone lines were destroyed and DAF (Desert Air Force) was effectively jamming all signals communication. These measures “badly disrupted the enemy’s communication system for some hours.” Allied air activity during this Alamein battle peaked during the two-day period of Operation Supercharge on November 2 and 3. Average daily sorties numbered 977, with the top figure of 1,044 being achieved on November 3.

With this substantial artillery and air support, Operation Supercharge had every prospect of success. Indeed, it would have been foolish to attempt this breakout battle without it. But success was not guaranteed, as the infantry and armored formations needed to play their parts. As Freyberg informed a visiting British officer :

"We have no illusions—it will be a tough battle but we shall be fighting him with the maximum amount of our artillery and all our tanks. If we are beaten, it will be our own fault. "

Operation Supercharge required careful planning and preparation and experienced staff officers to tie it all together in one coordinated effort. This was why Freyberg and the New Zealanders were chosen to carry it out. Montgomery knew that Freyberg had the skills and the team “who can make a difficult operation work.” But even Freyberg’s team could not do the impossible, especially when using formations that had not been under their command before. There was just so much to do. The artillery, infantry, armor, engineers, signallers, and all supporting arms had to be incorporated into the plan and each unit had to know their part in the plan and what was expected of them. The recent July experience of the New Zealanders and others have driven home the point that attacks risked failure if they were not properly planned and coordinated. There was so much at stake in this attack, as “the cost of a mistake this time would be [another] defeat.” On October 30, Alexander signaled Churchill that another large-scale attack with infantry and tanks was about to be launched. He advised Churchill, “If this is successful it will have far-reaching results.” If it failed, the results would also be far-reaching but catastrophic.

At noon on October 28, Freyberg was allocated the task of preparing the attack. It was not until the following day, though, that it was confirmed that Supercharge would be made south of the Australian positions and within forty-eight hours. While work on the plan for Operation Supercharge “was commenced at once,” it was clear that “time was short.” It was, in fact, too short and on the evening of October 30, Freyberg requested that the attack be delayed for twenty-four hours. He later admitted that it had been “impossible to prepare for this most vital operation in forty-eight hours.” Montgomery reluctantly agreed to this postponement primarily because he accepted Freyberg’s judgment. It went against his natural instincts, as Montgomery knew from Ultra intercepts that Rommel’s forces “have [been] reduced … to such a state that a hard blow now will complete his overthrow.” On November 1, Rommel’s tank force was estimated at 150 German and 130 Italian effective tanks. In reality, it was considerably less. The Afrika Korps had a total of 120 tanks; the Italians were down to just seventy-five. Montgomery also admitted that the delay “gives an advantage to the enemy” and that “there were doubts in high places about SUPERCHARGE and whisperings about what would happen if it failed.” The delay certainly made things more difficult for the Australians who, after their last attack on October 31–November 1, had to absorb the wrath of almost the entire Panzerarmee for another twenty-four hours. But as Freyberg acknowledged, despite these disadvantages, delaying the attack until the early hours of November 2 was “unavoidable.” He explained that “it eased the strain and made the staging of the battle less hurried.” Even then, the opening of Supercharge did not go smoothly.


The Battle for North Africa, El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II - Glyn Harper

Just after 0100 hours on the morning of November 2, Operation Supercharge was launched. In the initial assault, two British infantry brigades, supported by 350 guns and a brigade of “I” tanks, were to strike out due west and punch a 4,000-yard hole in the Panzer Army’s defenses. Montgomery recorded in his diary on November 2, 1942 :

"0100 Attack went in under a creeping barrage on a front of 4000 yds fired by over 300 25-pdrs. It was probably the first creeping barrage ever used in EGYPT. The attack was a complete success. "

Montgomery was wrong on two counts. The New Zealanders had fired a creeping barrage during Operation Lightfoot, but more significantly, the attack on the morning of November 2 was far from being the “complete success” Montgomery claimed it was.

While the artillery support was lavish for a two-brigade infantry attack, some who witnessed it experienced a sense of disappointment. The War Diary of the New Zealand Division recorded:

0105 hours artillery barrage opens. The opening was not considered as impressive as 23/24 October.

Freyberg’s diary recorded a “tremendous barrage” that made the ground shudder and “flashes like lightening” [sic] illuminating the landscape near the guns. But he did note that, “Opening not considered as impressive as 23/24 October.” With only one-third of the guns that had been fired on the opening night of Lightfoot and with a much slower rate of fire—just two rounds per gun per minute—it was to be expected that the barrage that opened Supercharge appeared weak and “slow.” But it was both accurate and effective. Dropping 150,000 rounds along a 4,000-yard front in the space of just over four hours was bound to have the desired effect on the enemy.

Of more concern was the “poor communications between the two attached brigades and the New Zealand headquarters,” which meant that their attacks “did not start as auspiciously as they might.” The New Zealand Division’s War Diary recorded a serious problem that its staff and liaison officers worked frantically to resolve. It logged in the closing hours of November 1: “Some confusion was experienced on the Start Line but by Z hour all was straitened and both 151 and 152 bdes crossed on time.”

Both infantry brigades did set off right on time and behind the protection of the creeping barrage. On the right, close to the Australians, were the infantry battalions of 151st Infantry Brigade. As this was the brigade most likely to meet stiff opposition, the 28 (Maori) Battalion was moved into the front to provide protection to this vulnerable right flank. On the left, to the south, were the Scottish battalions of 152st Highland Brigade. Each brigade had the Valentine tanks of a Royal Tank Regiment in support. Holding the start line and providing a “firm base” for the attack was 6th New Zealand Brigade. The Scots on the left advanced to the “skirl of pipes,” a sound that was echoed by the hunting horn blown by a company commander in the 9th Durham Light Infantry. A lieutenant in 9th Durhams recalled that with the Māoris screaming on the right, combined with the bagpipes and hunting horn, there was “a continuous wall of sound.” But the noise “kept our minds off other things.”

The two brigades that crossed the start line in the early hours of November 2 experienced mixed fortunes. Freyberg commented on this contrast in his secret after-action report: “The attack provided an interesting comparison, as on the left everything went like clockwork while on the right resistance was stronger and the situation remained obscure for hours.” Each brigade covered a frontage of 2,000 yards and advanced with two battalions leading. On the left flank of the advance, the Scottish battalions of 152nd Highland Brigade had a much easier task than 151st Infantry Brigade further north. The 5th Seaforths on the right captured their first objective against “very little opposition.” They then managed to bypass some dug-in tanks to reach their final objective just after 0400 hours. Their casualties had been “extremely light.” On the left flank, the 5th Camerons encountered more dug-in tanks than the Seaforths, but by keeping close to the creeping barrage they gained their final objective just after 0400 hours. Though somewhat disorganized when they reached it, 5th Camerons had incurred just twelve casualties. In the rear, 2nd Seaforths, allocated the mopping-up role, advanced with all four of its infantry companies in line and covering the whole brigade sector. They found that the enemy had abandoned their defensive positions, even the dug-in tanks that had been bypassed. The battalion collected more than thirty prisoners. On reaching the final objective, the 2nd Seaforths swung left and dug in forming a front just to the rear and facing south. Behind the infantry battalions, New Zealand sappers soon cleared passages through the minefields so that the Valentine tanks and support weapons reached the final objective early on November 2. The Valentine tanks of 50th RTR did suffer losses to mines, some anti-tank fire, and breakdown. From a starting strength of thirty-eight tanks, 50th RTR could muster just twenty-four “runners” at first light on November 2. At 0218 hours on November 2, the New Zealand Division received the welcome news from 152nd Highland Brigade that “Everything appears to be going according to plan.” At 0417 hours, it was confirmed that “both battalions have reached objective” and later that morning that “enemy tanks are melting away.” Freyberg was elated, later recording that:

“The attack had gone like a drill, both objectives being taken according to schedule. It was a very fine performance.”

To the north, though, 151st Infantry Brigade from 50th Northumbrian Division had a much tougher time and its assault definitely did not go to plan. This brigade had been the first formation to move, setting off from Tel el Eisa just after 1900 hours on November 1. The brigade had considerable support, including a field company of New Zealand engineers and the forty-four Valentine tanks of 8th RTR. Things did not go well from the start. On the extreme right 28 (Maori) Battalion set out to capture an intermediate objective that would provide the link with 9th Australian Division in the north. All four companies struck heavy opposition and suffered casualties. While the objectives were taken, the battalion was not holding them in strength, nor had they linked with the Australians on their right or the 8th Durham Light Infantry on the left. The Maori Battalion had taken 162 German and 189 Italian prisoners, but had suffered more than 100 casualties, including their commanding officer and his second-in-command. This was from “an already depleted battalion.” Major Charles Bennett, who took over command of the battalion that night, described the action of November 1–2 as “the most spirited attack that I … had taken part in.” He decided that the companies needed to stay put that morning, recalling that “We were like a little finger poked out into the enemy positions and likely to be nipped off with ease.” Throughout November 2, the Māori held their exposed positions “constantly under fire and without communications to the rear, even by runner.”

On the left of 28 (Maori) Battalion, the 8th Durham Light Infantry also hit several enemy strongpoints and suffered casualties. By 0230 hours, the leading companies reached their first objective but were too weak and disorganized to continue. The following company, still relatively intact, was ordered to push on, which it did. It managed to reach the final objective against little opposition just after 0400 hours. There it was isolated and relatively unprotected, although some of the Valentine tanks and two troops of New Zealand anti-tank guns joined them before first light. Contact was later established with the other Durham battalions, but “the battalion was low in strength and not well sited for defence.” On the left of 151st Infantry Brigade’s sector, 9th Durhams easily captured the first objective. Advancing to the final objective behind the creeping barrage, 9th Durhams encountered many enemy strongpoints and dug-in tanks. But the artillery had done its work and the Axis defenders were thoroughly demoralized. By 0400 hours, 9th Durhams had joined its sister battalion on the final objective, where it was soon joined by anti-tank and machine gunners in support. The third Durham battalion, 6th Durham Light Infantry, left the start line after its two sister battalions were 500 yards ahead. At first, things went well thanks to the work of the Māori infantry. No direct opposition was encountered in the first 1,000 yards. Once beyond the Māori objective, though, it faced heavy opposition that prevented this battalion from capturing all of the final objective. In fact, a dangerous gap existed between 6th Durham Light Infantry and 28 Maori Battalion that left the New Zealanders exposed to fire from three directions. However, 151st Brigade had occupied most of its final objective, although in some places it was “very thin on the ground.” Its casualties had been heavy: fifty killed, 211 wounded, and eighty-seven missing. That morning, though, once the armored regiments and commander of 151st Brigade, Brigadier J.E.S. Percy, realized that the New Zealand Engineers had done their job in breaching the minefields, three squadrons of Valentine tanks from 8th RTR reached the forward troops at daylight. There were, however, now only twelve effective runners in each squadron.

All morning, Freyberg and the headquarters of the New Zealand Division had been frantic about lack of information regarding 151st Brigade’s progress. All that had been learned was that there was considerable opposition and Brigadier Percy complained that the New Zealand sappers had failed his brigade. Freyberg later noted with some satisfaction, “It was not until 0400 hours that it was confirmed that the gaps had been made exactly as arranged, and that tanks and supporting arms were passing through satisfactorily.” At one stage, with information about 151st Brigade’s progress so sparse, Headquarters New Zealand Division requested its own 6th NZ Brigade holding the forward defense line “to assist in clearing up the obscure posn on 151 Bde front.” Just before 0600 hours, though, the situation was no longer obscure. Freyberg informed Corps Headquarters that “151st Brigade reported they were on their final objective and that the Northern gap was through.” It was time to unleash the Shermans, Grants, and Crusaders of 9th Armoured Brigade.

The responsibility for “the key action of the whole operation” rested upon 9th Armoured Brigade. The infantry brigades had torn open the Axis front line and penetrated it to a depth of 4,000 yards. The task of 9th Armoured Brigade now was to extend that gap by a further 2,000 yards to reach the last Axis anti-tank gun line along the Rahman track. Once this had been done, 9th Armoured Brigade was expected to draw out the enemy’s armor and absorb the first blows until 1st Armoured Division (2nd and 8th Armored Brigades) arrived to finish them off. This meant that 9th Armoured Brigade had the unenviable task of taking on both the Panzer Army’s anti-tank guns including lethal 88 mm gun screens and then its armor. As outlined above, Montgomery was prepared for the inevitable heavy casualties all commanders expected 9th Armoured Brigade to incur.

The brigade formed up near the Alamein station with 132 tanks allocated across the three regiments. Just after 1900 hours, as darkness fell, it advanced in battle order to fight the action that would determine the outcome of the battle. During the twenty-five-mile approach march, visibility was poor and progress slow. In the lead, on the right or northern flank, was 3rd Hussars. They actually made reasonable progress and, after stopping to refuel at midnight, reached the infantry start line just after midnight. Progress from here was slow and some casualties were incurred from enemy artillery fire. Six of the Hussars’ tanks were damaged or broke down, but by 0515 hours, the Hussars had reached the new forward line being assisted to reach it by 9th Durham Light Infantry. Immediately behind came the tanks and vehicles of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry. As this regiment was to be in the center of the new advance, attached to the Wiltshire Yeomanry was the brigade tactical headquarters and the headquarters of the Divisional Cavalry and support group. The Wiltshire Yeomanry refueled at 0145 hours, but their advance was held up by scattered mines, which required a Scorpion flail tank to clear a path. However, the Wiltshires reached the forward infantry shortly after the Hussars and formed up ready to attack. The third regiment of the brigade, the Warwickshire Yeomanry, following a different track, reached the forward infantry positions at 0545 hours.

Owing to the damage caused by artillery and mines, especially to the soft-skinned vehicles and the delay in getting forward on time, Brigadier Currie requested a half-hour delay before the attack commenced. A “disappointingly large number” of tanks had failed to reach the start line so that 9th Armoured Brigade had just “94 fit to go into action." While this delay meant extending the artillery barrage by an extra thirty minutes, Freyberg approved the request. It was a decision Freyberg later regretted, writing in his secret report that “the advance of the armour was too slow.” The half-hour delay “was a great pity” because with another hour of darkness, “9th Armoured Brigade might have got through [the gap] before first light.” At 0610 hours, the New Zealand Division Headquarters informed Freyberg that “Currie … ready to go forward when the barrage starts” and that the situation “appears to be reasonably good.” Freyberg, at his battle headquarters on the frontline, agreed. “It looks good here too,” he replied. Five minutes later, Freyberg’s diary recorded “Barrage for 9th Armd Bde advance opens.” The tanks of 9 Armoured Brigade surged forward behind it.

On the right, 3 Hussars, now down to only twenty-three tanks, set off on a much narrower front than intended. To their left, the Royal Wilshire Yeomanry, with thirty-three tanks, set off at the same time. Both regiments advanced at the rate of 100 yards every three minutes to keep to the protection of the creeping barrage. At first things went reasonably well, Axis anti-tank guns they encountered being rushed and destroyed. The Royal Wiltshires even managed to penetrate beyond the Rahman track. But as the light improved, anti-tank fire intensified and enemy tanks joined in the fight. Both regiments suffered heavy losses but they fought on. The Royal Wiltshires destroyed another fourteen anti-tank guns and six tanks but they were “almost wiped out” in the process. In a later examination of the battlefield, here both regiments were credited with destroying some thirty-seven anti-tank guns. They had made “a dent, if not a complete breach, in the enemy’s gun line that only needed immediate exploitation.”

Over a mile to the south, the third regiment of 9th Armoured Brigade, the Warwickshire Yeomanry, fought an almost independent battle that morning. It was much further south than it should have been, probably as the result of faulty map reading. It advanced from the forward line being held by the infantry of 152nd Brigade with thirty-eight “runners” of the forty-four it had started with. Just beyond the start line, the Warwicks struck a concentration of anti-tank guns and some enemy tanks. The Warwicks were “especially unlucky” that morning, as the regiment had created a salient and was being engaged from three sides. Many of these guns were shot up, but the regiment also suffered heavy casualties. The surviving Warwick tanks were forced to withdraw behind their own hastily constructed gun line, which consisted of just two six-pounder guns.

At dawn on November 2, the situation for 9th Armoured Brigade was precarious. While Currie and his tank crews were determined to keep the gap they had created open, Currie witnessed his brigade being steadily destroyed. It was fighting “a grim and gallant battle right in the enemy gun line.” At first light on November 2, the brigade was down to just seven heavy tanks in 3rd Hussars, nine in the Wiltshires, and seven in the Warwicks. To make things worse, reports were received from Eighth Army wireless intercepts that the Afrika Korps were preparing a counterattack from the north. Just before 0800 hours, enemy tanks were observed assembling to the west of the Wiltshires. Freyberg’s diary recorded that: “Enemy tanks were coming in and our tanks of 9th Armd were in action with these.” While 9th Armoured Brigade did not reach their final objectives and had suffered heavy casualties, according to Freyberg “the action was a success as the enemy gun line was smashed.” He believed that “it may well prove to have been the deciding factor in breaking the German line, though advantage was not taken of the breach until later.”

At first light, Brigadier Currie looked out on a scene of total devastation and the remnants of what had once been his armored brigade. Brigadier Lucas Phillips described the scene :

“As far as the eye could see lay the terrible record—tank after tank burning or wrecked, the smoke of their burning mingled with the cold mist, the crimson shafts from the eastern sky tincturing all objects with the hue of blood. Only here and there could he see a tank still defiantly shooting it out with the more distant guns and the tanks of the Afrika Korps. He was very angry, very bitter. In fulfilment of his orders, he was ready to sacrifice all if Fisher’s brigade had been there to crash through whatever ragged breaches he had torn in the enemy’s wall of guns.”

Currie had lost seventy-five of his ninety-four tanks and 230 of his 400 men. These were grave losses. The Australian official historian asserted Monty’s quote, “If the British armour owed any battle debts to the New Zealand infantry, 9th Armoured Brigade paid them dearly and liberally that morning in heroism and in blood.” It was a point Montgomery publicly repeated fifty years later.

Currie had indeed sacrificed most of his brigade in extending the gap to the Panzer Army’s gun line. If 9th Armoured Brigade’s three regiments had not punched a hole through the Axis positions, “they certainly left a crack that was ripe for exploitation.” They had knocked out forty enemy tanks. Equally important, a subsequent inspection showed that 9th Armored Brigade had also knocked out thirty-eight anti-tank guns, which “paid large dividends in the later stages of the battle.” But the brigade needed urgent reinforcement. Several times that morning, Brigadier Currie radioed Freyberg urging that 1st Armoured Division join in the fight. Currie’s urging was in vain. In a repeat of the October 23–24 action, 1st Armoured Division was again very slow to join the battle. An entry in the New Zealand Division’s War Diary at 0735 hours recorded :

"Position reported to Corps Comd: 9th Armd Bde is out where it should be. There is one 88 mm behind them which is being dealt with. He considers he has broken through. The Bde has suffered casualties and is therefore very thin on the ground. He says the 1st Armd Div are moving very slowly. There is an opportunity there and we suggest 1st Armd Div should be pushed out as far as it can be. Corps Comd replies “I will definitely.”

Three minutes later Freyberg urged Leese to apply “more ginger” to 1 Armoured Brigade. Seven minutes later he was more blunt, asking the New Zealand headquarters to : “Tell Oliver [Leese] to tell them [1Armd Bde] to get a bloody move on.” In total, Freyberg and the New Zealanders made five separate requests that morning to the Corps commander Leese to have 1st Armoured Division join much deplated 9th Armoured Brigade in the battle.

In fact, the first regiment of 1st Armoured Division had reached 9 Armoured Brigade just after 0700 hours. This was the 9th Lancers of Brigadier Bertie Fischer’s 2nd Armoured Brigade. Currie informed the Lancers’ commanding officer, Colonel Gerald Grosvenor, that he needed to move through the gap they had cut “bloody quick.” Grosvenor looked around at the scene of devastation and destruction in front of him, including several burning British tanks, and replied, “I have never seen anything, sir, that looks less like a gap.” Grosvenor refused to move his tanks forward, a decision that was supported by both his brigadier Fisher and the commander of 1st Armoured Division, Major General Raymond Briggs. Instead, 2nd Armoured took up defensive positions along the new front line. Currie was furious and he and several senior commanders, including Freyberg and Leese, believed that an opportunity to break through that morning had been lost. 30th Corps commander General Oliver Leese wrote to his wife on the following day:

“Our break through attack on Sunday was magnificent. The Infantry did 4000 yds behind a barrage & my armour [123 tanks of 9th Armoured Brigade, attached to the New Zealand Division] followed it up with another 2000 yds in the dash. It was not so difficult as our first night. The Armour then again failed to get out.”

At 1000 hours, an angry and frustrated Freyberg reported to his headquarters that:

"The position on the front was NOT very satisfactory. Additional armour had NOT moved up, and what was there was NOT moving fwd. "

After the war, Leese was even more critical of the armor’s failure to push through the gap created by the infantry and 9th Armoured Brigade. The infantry part of Operation Supercharge “exceeded all expectations,” he wrote. With all objectives taken, “a definite opportunity for the armour to break out” had been created. But it was not to be. The armored formations were “again late and as before remained on our own infantry Forward Defence Lines.”


The Battle for North Africa, El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II - Glyn Harper

The location of Operation Supercharge caught Rommel by surprise. While his front had not broken, he knew the situation was desperate and that his tank losses had been “severe.” He knew, too, what had prevented the British Eighth Army from breaking through: “It was only by the desperate fire of all available artillery and anti-aircraft guns, regardless of the ammunition shortage, that a further British penetration was prevented.” Rommel took the immediate decision to commit his armor on the morning of November 2 “to pinch out the enemy wedge.” The 21st Panzer Division would counterattack north of the wedge and 15th Panzer from its south. The “gravity of the situation in the north” forced Rommel to commit another armored division, the Italian Ariete Division, early in the afternoon. As he recorded of this counterattack: “Violent tank fighting followed.” This was exactly what Montgomery had planned for. At last he had his clash of armor on ground of his choosing.

Signals intercepts confirmed that the Axis armor was on its way. Freyberg’s diary recorded at 0935 hours:

“Message in from 30th Corps that 21st Panzer Division is expected to counter-attack West South West from 868302. It was also said that 15th Panzer Div would counter-attack about the inter-bde boundary. Situation of various batteries was also reported. Passed this to NZ Division.”

Not only had the artillery readied itself to meet the counterattack but, along the new front, 2nd and 8th Armoured Brigades also prepared to meet the Afrika Korps attack. At noon, the remaining twenty-four tanks of 9th Armoured Brigade were grouped to form a composite regiment and placed on the right flank of 2nd Armoured Brigade just where the weight of 21st Panzer’s attack would fall. For the rest of the morning and into the afternoon of November 2, “there was the fiercest and most prolonged tank engagement of the whole battle.” An early report described the action: “All day the battle raged. One hundred and seventy-six enemy tanks were reported counterattacking furiously from the north and southwest.” Losses were heavy on both sides, but the Afrika Korps suffered most of them. In the first encounter of the day, 2nd Armoured Brigade knocked out twenty-five German tanks, of which eighteen continued to burn for most of the day. Two JU-87 Stuka air raids that the Luftwaffe attempted were driven off by Desert Air Force Hurricane fighters before they even reached the battlefield and the DAF bombers pounded andf strafed the Afrika Korps columns and positions during the day. The War Diary of German 90th Light Division recorded a critical moment in the battle:

“During the morning the fighting reached its climax. Smoke and dust covered the battlefield, and visibility became so bad that the general picture was of one immense cloud of smoke and dust. Tanks engaged in single combat; in these few hours the battle of Alamein was decided.”

Sometimes called the battle of Tel el Aqqaqir, this great tank encounter was the climax of the battle. General von Thoma later described the battle as “Tank against tank.” For him it was “the biggest tank battle I have ever experienced.” During the battle, the Afrika Korps and one Italian armored division were exposed to the fire of hull-down Grants and Shermans, the superiority of the British artillery, and the bombs of the DAF and “took a mortal pounding.” In total, “77 German and 40 Italian tanks had been put out of action” that day. It had been “an unequal battle from every point of view.” Not only did the British have air supremacy and more tanks, but Afrika Korps was forced to attack in daylight across open ground. The result was that Afrika Korps “suffer[ed] the kind of losses which they had so often in the past inflicted upon their opponents.”

General Freyberg, whose reading of the battle was as good as any other, felt that by the end of November 2, “it was clear that the enemy was cracking.” He warned his brigadiers to be ready for the exploitation phase, believing that the enemy would soon withdraw. “I felt certain that the war on our front was over,” he wrote. Rommel, whose experience matched Freyberg’s, had reached a similar conclusion. But while the Afrika Korps was “virtually destroyed during the day of intense fighting,” 1st Armoured Division had still not been able to penetrate beyond the Rahman track. Some British commanders despaired that they could ever get beyond the Axis gun line. As the Australian official historian recorded, even on November 2: “The Eighth Army was not hitting Rommel for six, nor even penetrating his outfield to the boundary.” Operation Supercharge was similar to Lightfoot in that it had made a sizable advance, but had still not achieved the desired breakthrough.

In the end, this did not matter. That evening, with “only 35 serviceable panzers left” and with an “absolutely desperate” supply situation, Rommel gave the order to break off the attack and withdraw. The Afrika Korps’ War Diary recorded of the decision: “The situation compels Panzer Army to withdraw slowly by bounds to a new line. Afrika Korps will withdraw on a wide front.” That “new line” would be at Fuka, some sixty miles away. After ten days of fighting, Eighth Army had won the battle.

The battle spluttered on for two more days. On the evening of November 2 at 1950 hours, Rommel sent a message to OKW hinting at the need to withdraw, but not actually stating that he had already given the order to do so. It was “his famous admission of defeat.” Rommel’s message read :

"Despite today’s defensive success, the army’s strength is exhausted after ten days of tough combat against immensely superior British ground and air forces. The army will therefore no longer be capable of impeding the strong enemy tank formations expected to repeat their breakthrough attempt tonight or tomorrow. For want of motor transport it will not be possible for the six Italian and two German nonmotorized divisions to withdraw in good order. A large part of these units will probably be overrun by the enemy’s mechanized formations. But even our mechanized troops are engaged in such heavy fighting that only part will be able to disengage from the enemy…. In this situation the gradual destruction of the army must therefore be assumed to be inevitable despite the heroic resistance and exemplary spirit of the troops.

Sgd. Rommel, Field Marshal."

The message has been accurately described as “a clever piece of expectation management.” by Rommel to his superiors instead of flatly admitting defeat and strategic blunder of entering Egypt and over extending all the way to Alamein line without necessary support and logistics structure and air cover.

In the early hours of November 3, Rommel’s follow-up report to OKW retrospectively announced that he had given the order to withdraw commencing at 2200 hours on the night of November 2. Both messages were intercepted and decoded by Bletchley Park in England and in Brooke and Montgomery’s hands by noon the next day. On the night of November 2, those German and Italian troops not locked in combat at the front began hastily retreating westward.

The Panzer Army, however, did not withdraw from the Alamein position on November 3. The entry in the Afrika Korps War Diary for November 3 confirmed a change in intent. It recorded that, “Now that the situation had altered, and a mobile defensive policy was about to be instituted on the Alamein front, this withdrawal was stopped.” There had been no change in policy, nor had the situation altered in Rommel’s favor. Instead, Hitler had responded poorly to Rommel’s “expectation management.” In fact, David Irving has written that Rommel’s signal about the withdrawal of Panzerarmee from Alamein “poleaxed Hitler.” After venting his anger and frustration at General Walter Warlimont for not immediately passing on Rommel’s signal, Hitler dictated an immediate message to be radioed to Rommel. It would become “one of the most famous signals of the war.”

Around midday on November 3, Rommel returned to his headquarters after inspecting the situation along the coast road. He had narrowly missed being killed by “a carpet of bombs laid by 18 British aircraft,” only avoiding the bombs by “some frantic driving.” At 1330 hours, an order arrived from Adolf Hitler. While it praised the leadership of Rommel and the courage of his soldiers, it was emphatic that there would be no withdrawal from the Alamein position. The Führer told Rommel :

“In the situation in which you find yourself there can be other thought than to stand fast, yield not a yard of ground and throw every gun and every man into the battle…. Your enemy, despite his superiority, must also be at the end of his strength. It would not be the first time in history that a strong will has triumphed over the bigger battalions. As to your troops, you can show them no other road than that to victory or death.”

Rommel was infuriated and puzzled by this order. He admitted that he was “completely stunned” by it. More than this, it filled him with indecision: “For the first time during the African campaign I did not know what to do.” He later described November 3, 1942, as “a memorable day in history.” One of Rommel’s biographers has written that Hitler’s signal on November 3 “marked a turning in Rommel’s life and views.” It certainly had a profound effect on him. This was because “not only did it become finally clear on that day that the fortunes of war had deserted us, but from that day on the Panzer Army’s freedom of decision was continually curtailed by the interference of higher authority in its conduct of operations.” This interference “came as a considerable shock” to Rommel, but he did his best to comply with the order. He ordered movement to the west to be halted and made some attempts to strengthen his defenses. He also reported back to Hitler that while he would comply with the order, it meant soon losing the entire army and with it their position in North Africa. To emphasize how serious the situation was, Rommel sent his personal assistant Leutnant Alfred-Ingemar Berndt to report directly to Hitler that if his “stand fast” order was upheld, “the final destruction of the German-Italian Army would be a matter of days only.”

Reversing the withdrawal once it had commenced proved to be extremely difficult. Rommel read Hitler’s “stand fast” order to von Thoma, commander of the Afrika Korps, and informed him that the withdrawal was canceled. “We have no other choice,” he told von Thoma. “We must make a stand, and if there’s no other way out, we must be prepared to die.” Von Thoma agreed and assured Rommel that he would not withdraw without orders to do so. But there was a huge problem. Von Thoma informed Rommel that:the position is that we do not have a continuous front, the Italians have all pushed off … Still more bad news has arrived. Tanks have broken through at various points. The situation is now critical, Sir. Rommel agreed with von Thoma that he could withdraw to the first bound as planned, some fifteen kilometers (nine miles) east of El Daba, but from here “this line is to be held to the last man.” According to Rommel, Hitler’s order “had a powerful effect on the troops.” They would obey it and “sacrifice themselves to the last man.” But “an overwhelming bitterness welled up in us.” This was because they all knew “that even the greatest effort could no longer change the course of the battle.” A superb army was being destroyed because of rash decisions made thousands of miles away.

The New Zealand official history described November 3, 1942, as “a curious day in the Battle of Alamein.” This was because “confusion, indecision and caution were more prominent than action.” Alexander reported to Churchill that on November 3, “progress was slow owing to mines and anti-tank gun screens.” On the evening of November 2, three battalions of the 7th Motor Brigade tried to secure objectives across the Rahman track prior to the armor of 1st Armoured Division moving across the track the next morning. Only one battalion, the 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps (2 KRRC), secured any new ground but it did not get to the Rahman track. At first light on the morning of November 3, 2nd KRRC, in its exposed forward position, was attacked by the tanks of the Italian Littorio Division. With its six-pounder guns in support, it was able to hold off the attack and during the morning it destroyed seven M13 tanks in the firefight.

The anti-tank gun screen across the Rahman track was still effective, so no advance of the armor of 1st Armoured Division took place that morning. Instead, 8th Armoured Brigade moved south of Tel el Aqqaqir toward a newly captured feature known as “Skinflint.” Both armored brigades of the division engaged in long-range shooting that day and claimed to have knocked out another twenty-two tanks and twenty-three guns during it. It was a frustrating day for the British commanders. They could sense that Rommel’s front was broken, but they still could not penetrate the Panzer Army’s anti-tank gun lines.

This was also the day that the air effort of DAF (Desert Air Force) reached its peak in the North African campaign. Around the small hill of the Tel el Aqqaqir feature, the DAF bombed anything that moved. Tel el Aqqaqir was a slight elevation where 15th Panzer Division had taken up strong defensive positions. Its height offered superb observation over this part of the battlefield and protection for gun emplacements. It was “ideal for placing artillery” and it was here that that “the vast majority of Rommel’s remaining 88 mms were situated.” But the hill was a prominent feature, which made it an ideal target for aerial bombing. Tel el Aqqaqir “rapidly became the crucial ground under contest.” During “the busiest and … probably the most successful day of the battle,” the DAF flew 1,094 sorties and dropped 199 tons of bombs. Its losses, though, were “heavy, with 16 planes being lost and a further 11 damaged.”

A series of hastily mounted infantry attacks on the afternoon of November 3 produced negligible results. One carried out by 5/7th Gordons of 51st Highland Division, supported by Valentine tanks of 8th RTR, in the evening of November 3 was disastrous primarily because artillery support had been canceled for fear of hitting the armor of 1st Armoured Division. The tanks were in fact nowhere near where the attack was made. The Gordons managed to capture a position near the Rahman track south of Tel el Aqqaqir, but suffered ninety-four casualties. Nine Valentine tanks had been destroyed and a further eleven damaged from the thirty-two that had taken part. Niall Barr is critical of these improvised attacks, writing that they “proved yet again that Eighth Army found it difficult to conduct effective small-scale operations.” These attacks of November 2–3, according to Barr, “had borne a striking similarity to many of the hastily organised and poorly prepared operations mounted in July.” There is no denying, though, that these actions had an acute impact on Panzer Army and Rommel felt the loss of every single tank and gun.

More promising, though, was the foray by two armored car squadrons of the Royals and by some South African armored cars that managed to slip behind the Axis positions and reach the El Daba area. Here they shot up Axis supply trucks , cars and soft-skin vehicles and caused considerable alarm. It was these vehicles that von Thoma reported to Rommel as the tanks that had broken through their positions. General Freyberg wrote that the operations on November 3 amounted to obtaining some “further elbow room.” Traveling across the front in the afternoon, Freyberg noticed “a great change. Everything seemed to point to a general enemy withdrawal.” Freyberg was correct but there was one final infantry effort to come.

Even as the battered tanks of 8 RTR returned “covered with the dead bodies of my Highlanders,” Major General Wimberley , commander of 51st Highland Division was ordered to make another two infantry attacks that night. But his 51st Highland Division, like other formations in Eighth Army, had run out of infantry. To make what would be the last infantry assault at Alamein, Wimberley was given the 5th Indian Brigade for the task. This brigade was still “relatively fresh” and it was to try to capture part of the Rahman track immediately south of the 5/7th Gordons that night. It was to advance on a narrow front southwest of Tel el Aqqaqir for a distance of two miles. This would be followed by a two-battalion assault by 51 (Highland) Division on the Tel el Aqqaqir feature.

In support of 5th Indian Brigade’s attack were the surviving Valentine tanks of 50 and 46 RTR and a massive amount of artillery. This artillery support included the field guns of 1st Armoured, 51st Highland, and the New Zealand Divisions, as well as two medium regiments. This was a total of 360 guns similar to what had been used to commence Operation Supercharge two nights before. In total, these guns fired 37,000 rounds that night. The New Zealand artillery commander, Brigadier “Steve” Weir, coordinated the artillery fire plan. His task was made much harder by the combination of the short time period to prepare the plan and the fact that 5th Indian Brigade had never before advanced behind a creeping barrage.

There was considerable confusion at the start of the attack. It was so muddled that zero hour was delayed by an hour. However, some artillery batteries did not get word of the postponement and opened fire at the arranged time. At 0230 hours, the attack went ahead and commenced with a full artillery barrage. However, only one complete battalion, 1/4 Essex and two companies from 4/6 Rajputana Rifles, which was meant to be the reserve battalion, advanced behind it. In spite of the confused start and the weak attacking force, “the operation went with complete success.” There was little opposition encountered as the artillery had been so effective that the Indian brigade encountered mostly dead or demoralized defenders and little resistance. The Essex battalion was on their objective at first light with more than 100 prisoners. The Rajputs had similar success and that morning the tanks of 50/46 RTR joined the infantry on their objectives without losing any tanks. While the Indian infantry earned “high praise at the time” for this attack, there is little doubt that its success was primarily due to the overwhelming artillery support it had been allocated.

The final infantry operation of the battle was made by the 7/10 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. This battalion was allocated the task of capturing the Tel el Aqqaqir feature. Advancing at 0515 hours on a narrow 600-yard front, under a barrage provided by seven regiments of field artillery, the advance was unopposed. However, eight men were killed and twenty-three wounded from artillery rounds dropping short. Clearly the gunners were fatigued and some of their gun barrels worn out. At 0710 hours when the barrage ceased, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders “found themselves in complete and unopposed occupation of the Tel el Aqqaqir feature.” Only two German prisoners were captured and it was clear that the enemy had abandoned the position in considerable haste. These two infantry attacks had finally opened up gaps in the Axis frontline, which Eighth Army’s armor could exploit.

In the north, on the morning of November 4, the Australian infantry probed the enemy lines. The patrols found the troublesome Thompson’s Post and other Axis positions abandoned. Instead, the enemy were now holding a line around a mile west of the Australian positions. The “dogfight” phase of the battle was over.

At 0830 hours on the morning of November 4, the 7th Armoured Division was through the gap. It had moved north on October 31, “ready to exploit the breakthrough he [Montgomery] shortly expected to achieve in the northern sector.” It had taken longer than expected but the breakthrough had been made. “We got out into the open, a tremendous feeling,” recalled John Harding. The 11th Hussars in the lead, with 22 Armoured Brigade of 7 Armoured Division following, drove beyond Tel el Aqqaqir for five miles before it encountered any opposition. This happened in the early afternoon, when 22nd Armoured Brigade encountered the tanks of the Italian Ariete Armored Division. Although their tanks were seriously outmatched, the Italians fought desperately for several hours. In this last fight, the Ariete were joined by the remnants of the Littorio and Trieste Divisions. The action lasted all afternoon and ended at dusk when “all three Italian divisions were mostly destroyed.” Rommel received a report from the senior field officer present that his Axis partners had “fought with exemplary courage.” He described their annihilation as “a very gallant action” and admitted that “we had probably always demanded more than they, with their poor armament, had been capable of performing.” The Italian 20th Corps had certainly proved capable and courageous that afternoon. These often-maligned Italian formations had sacrificed themselves in this last armored encounter at Alamein. In doing so they gave the Afrika Korps the chance to escape a similar fate.

Rommel had a terrible dilemma. His defenses at Alamein had been “crumbled.” His front was broken and the powerful armor of Eighth Army was about to be unleashed. Yet his Führer had forbidden him to withdraw, instead urging Rommel and Panzerarmee to “yield not a yard of ground” and travel the single road to “victory or death.” In November 1942, victory was out of the question and Rommel did not relish needlessly sacrificing himself or his army. On the morning of November 3, Rommel’s commanding officer, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, arrived at Panzerarmee’s headquarters. There Rommel vented his frustrations about Hitler’s “crazy order” and admitted that “some angry words passed between us.” According to Rommel’s son Manfred, Kesselring sympathized with Rommel and restored his freedom of action. Manfred Rommel noted that:

Kesselring did, in fact, discuss with my father the possibility of circumventing Hitler’s order. Kesselring gave it as his view that Rommel, as the man on the spot, should do what he thought was right.

On the afternoon of November 4, 1942, there was only one prudent course of action left to Rommel. As he recorded of his decision :

“So now it had come, the thing we had done everything in our power to avoid—our front broken and the fully motorised enemy streaming into our rear. Superior orders could no longer count. We had to save what there was to be saved. After a preliminary talk with Colonel Bayerlein, who had now assumed command of the Afrika Korps again, I issued orders for the retreat to be started immediately.”

General Von Thoma (who was captured on late morning of 4th November by 1st Armored Division on the frontlines while organising a final desperate rearguard action of Afrikakorps at Tel el Mapsra. His composite battlegroup from 21st Panzer and German 90th Light Divisions was complately destroyed by 2nd Armored Brigade and 7th Motor Brigade and heavy British artillery fire. Von Thoma was himself taken prisoner on top of his knocked out panzer , brought to Eighth Army HQ , dined with Montgomery in the evening , even invited Monty to his estate in Germany after the war ) was correct when he informed Crüwell that it was “a very important decision” and that the delay making it made the withdrawal that night “extremely difficult.” Rommel did send an immediate signal to Hitler explaining that to prevent the loss of North Africa, he needed to resort to “mobile warfare” and that he would contest with the enemy “every foot of ground” from a new defensive position running from Fuka to the south. Rommel sought retrospective approval for his decision. Afrika Korps received Rommel’s order at 1450 hours that day. It recorded that at dusk it was to “withdraw to the area south of Fuka.” Having taken the decision to abandon the Alamein position, Rommel must have been relieved to receive two signals the next morning, one from Adolf Hitler, the other from Kesselring. While they were “far too late,” they did authorize his withdrawal to the Fuka position.

On November 4, with Rommel’s signals to Hitler being intercepted and translated by Bletchley Park almost as fast as he was sending them, General Alan Brooke allowed himself a measure of satisfaction. He recorded in his diary that “The Middle East news has the makings of the vast victory I have been praying and hoping for.” If Montgomery had failed to defeat Rommel in this third battle of Alamein, “I should have had little else to suggest beyond my relief by someone with fresh and new ideas!” But the news was promising and Brooke ended his entry on November 4 saying, “It is very encouraging at last to begin to see results from a year’s hard labour.” While the botched pursuit of the defeated Afrika Korps did not result in the “vast victory” many hoped for, it was a decisive victory nonetheless.

Six days later, at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon banquet in London on November 10, a jubilant Winston Churchill was in fine form. He said in his speech that he never promised anything to the British people but blood, sweat, tears, and toil. Then he described a novel development in the war. Churchill explained to the audience:

“Now, however, we have a new experience. We have victory. A remarkable and definite victory…. Rommel’s army has been defeated. It has been routed. It has been largely destroyed as a fighting force.”

It had been no easy victory. After twelve days and thirteen nights of hard fighting with the heavy casualties this entailed, Rommel’s Panzerarmee was broken and had been forced to withdraw from the battle. It was not yet destroyed as a fighting force, though. Despite this, the democracies had won their first offensive battle against a German-led army in the Second World War. This October–November Alamein battle was a considerable achievement and indisputably one of the war’s great turning points. Why this was so is explained in the next concluding section .

An officer in the 7th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders recalled a moving event at the end of the battle. Lieutenant John Campbell remembered:

“When it was all over, and the Germans had withdrawn, the pipe major went up on the skyline and played “Flowers of the Forest.” Everybody wept.”

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Pendelum of War - Niall Barr

By the evening of 4 November the issue was no longer in doubt. After 12 days of intense fighting, the resistance of the Panzerarmee had finally been broken. The British armoured brigades, which Montgomery had hoped would break out at dawn on 24 October, were at last in the open. But there had been no breakthrough in the strict definition of the military term. Had Operation Supercharge succeeded and the British armour punched through the Axis defences on 2nd November, the Eighth Army might well have been able to encircle and destroy the entire Panzerarmee while it remained fixed to its positions. Supercharge did not succeed as planned and the Panzerarmee had already begun to step back and make preparations for retreat on the night of 2nd November. Even with Hitler’s ‘victory or death’ order, it was this fact, more than any other, which ensured that when the British armour did reach the open desert they would find it impossible to encircle and destroy Rommel’s army completely.

The 15th Panzer Division battle report later commented that, during 4 November, the Eighth Army had ‘approached the German positions with great caution’. This was only the first accusation of caution levelled against the Eighth Army during the pursuit and it is a cry that has been taken up by historians ever since. However, it was not caution but pure congestion that delayed and hampered Eighth Army’s break-out and pursuit over the coming days. With every unit champing at the bit to be involved in the pursuit, enormous traffic jams developed that took hours to sort out. An artillery officer later explained:

“In thick clouds of thick, cloying dust, which was semi-solid up to one’s waist, the Regiment disappeared into the gaps and every driver and every man peered forward to try and keep the next gun or truck in view. Battery commanders strove to keep up with their battalion or regimental commanders, whose formations were pouring through the gaps and fanning out in a great flood. Men and officers alike were in a great state of excitement, disbelief and wonder.”

The units of Eighth Army were still hemmed in by the narrow salient of Operation Supercharge and all the supporting transport had to make its slow laborious way through tight minefield gaps and choking dust. Given these conditions, Eighth Army did well to exert any pressure at all upon the Panzerarmee during 4 November.

The pursuit began in earnest on 5 November. 2nd Armoured Brigade reached El Daba in the early afternoon and drove on aiming for Bir Khalda just south of Mersa Matruh. 8th Armoured Brigade got on the move early and drove rapidly to Galal. There, the brigade found:

“enemy tanks and transport streaming Westwards along the Main road. The road was quickly blocked and several tanks knocked out. The enemy there, taken apparently by surprise, fell into the bag wholesale.”

During the afternoon, the brigade fought a sharp action at Galal station in which 20 Italian tanks were destroyed in less than 10 minutes. By the evening, the brigade had knocked out 54 Axis tanks, captured 12 guns , 100 motorised vehicles and taken more than 1,200 prisoners in one day.

7th Armoured Division spent a slightly frustrating day, during which the tanks had to change direction several times to avoid confusion with other formations. A dummy minefield caused considerable delay and progress was not as rapid as John Harding had hoped. 22nd Armored Brigade under command of Brigadier Pip Roberts clashed with remanants of Arierte Armored Division at south of Fuka and after a sharp engagement , 22n Armored Brigade complated the destruction of Arierte Armored Division , taking 900 prisoners , destroying remaining 45 Italian tanks and capturing 55 guns. But this clash also stalled advance of 7th Armored Division which 22nd Armored Brigade was part of. Carver later related that Harding tried to persuade Lumsden to give 7th Armoured Division:

“priority in petrol supplies and let us, who knew this part of the desert like the backs of our hands, drive west, until we could be certain that we had overtaken Rommel’s withdrawal, then cut up north to block him, probably between Sollum and Bardia.”

Lumsden, however, wanted to give 1st Armoured Division, his previous command, a more prominent role in the pursuit. Moreover, there was considerable pressure to open up the coast road as soon as possible to ensure the flow of supplies and to reopen the vital landing grounds for the Desert Air Force.

Although Harding did not know it, a plan similar to his had been presented to Montgomery by de Guingand on 2nd November. De Guingand had tasked Richardson with developing Operation Grapeshot for an independent force that would be capable of reaching Tobruk and sustaining itself for seven days. The force would consist of 96 tanks, preferably diesel-engined Shermans and Grants, two regiments of armoured cars, two battalions of infantry, one Royal Horse Artillery battery and a light anti-aircraft regiment along with a field squadron of engineers. Once Eighth Army had taken Mersa Matruh, Major-General Gairdner would drive down the Siwa track to reach Bir Khamsa and on to Tobruk.125 The plan certainly had potential and might well have placed the Panzerarmee in real difficulty but Montgomery did not agree to it.

Montgomery’s attitude towards his armoured commanders certainly did not help matters during the initial pursuit. With his trust in his 10th Corps commander at an all time low, he refused to give Lumsden full independence to conduct the pursuit. Quite simply, Montgomery did not want the hard-won laurels of the victory to be won by Lumsden, Gatehouse or Briggs when he considered that their performance during the battle had been poor. From Montgomery’s perspective throughout entire battle British armor commanders were mostly insubordinate and displayed a poor performance. Montgomery’s failure before the battle began to plan adequately for pursuit meant that no unit was given overall priority in the chase. Each commander followed his own instincts. All three armoured divisions, along with 2nd New Zealand Division, attempted to be ‘in at the kill’. The result on 5 November was a series of ‘short hooks’ that failed to catch the retreating Panzerarmee though they trapped and mostly destroyed retreating Axis rearguard columns.

The remnants of the Afrika Korps were actually able to disengage from the pursuing elements of Eighth Army during a night march on the night of 5 November. Although 6th New Zealand Brigade captured Fuka and severed the coastal road on 6th November , they could bag only 500 Axis stragglers who were late to retreat via coastal route. Meanwhile the remains of 21st Panzer Division was immobilised for lack of fuel at southeast of Mersa Matruh same day and and then was attacked by 4th Light Armored Brigade. After suffering severe casaulties again under British tank assault , 21st Panzer Division remnants were only really saved by the rain which fell in the early afternoon and turned the desert into a quagmire. The storm and subsequent floods on 6 and 7 November brought Eighth Army’s pursuit grinding to a halt. It had missed the fleeting opportunity on 5 November and the rainstorms confirmed the failure. Ultimately, although a number of attempts were made to cut them off, the remnants of the Panzer Army were able to escape.

However, Rommel did not escape with anything recognisable as an army. Casualty figures for the Panzer Army will only ever be estimates given the confusion that reigned amongst its units in the early stages of the pursuit. British estimates, based on intercepts (these figures were nowhere complate though since they were taken in heat of battle and pursuit), gave German casualties as 1,149 killed, 3,886 wounded and 8,050 captured. Italian losses amounted to 971 dead, 933 wounded and 23,552 captured. By 11 November the total number of Axis prisoners captured had risen to 34,000 (10.561 Germans , 23.550 Italians) as more were netted during the pursuit in addition to appox 24.000 killed , wounded and missing Germans and Italians in total during the battle. Eighth Army claimed to have destroyed or captured 259 Axis tanks and 254 guns during the fighting although these were incomplete estimates. These figures increased 548 tanks and 661 guns lost by Panzer Army in mid November when a more total count was made. A more revealing assessment of the damage inflicted upon the Panzer Army came on the morning of 5 November, when the divisions of the Afrika Korps reported their current strengths. 15th Panzer Division had eight battleworthy tanks, 200 riflemen, four anti-tank guns and 12 field guns left. 21st Panzer Division comprised 18 battleworthy tanks, 400 men in three weak battalions, 16 anti-tank guns and 25 field guns. German 90th Light Division had three weak regiments and one depleted artillery regiment. German 164th Light Division had 700 men and six anti-tank guns left. The Italian armoured and motorised formations were comprehensively destroyed on 4 November – one after the other the Littorio, Trieste and Ariete Divisions had sent in their final messages to Panzer Army Headquarters. The Italian infantry formations stranded in the desert with no transport, water or food had no choice but actually to seek out units of the Eighth Army and surrender. There was only one exception to this bleak picture. On 5 November, paratroops from Ramcke’s Parachute Brigade managed to capture a column of British transport, enabling nearly 600 men to rejoin the Panzer Army two days later. The vital support structure of the army, along with the headquarters of the formations, did survive but the fighting element was reduced to little more than a weak regimental group. In these circumstances, the wreck of the Panzer Army survived only by making a headlong flight out of Egypt.

Eighth Army paid a heavy price for its victory: 2,350 of its men had been killed during the battle. Another 8,950 servicemen had been wounded in the fighting while 2,260 were missing in action. At least 500 British tanks had been knocked out during the battle (though 350 of them repaired within a week after the battle concluded and returned back to service) and 111 guns destroyed. Before the battle, Richardson had been asked by de Guingand for an estimate of the total casualties to assist the medical services in planning hospital provision. He admitted that he had no experience to help him come up with a figure so de Guingand went to Montgomery. The Army Commander ‘forecast with great accuracy’ a figure of 13,000. The actual total was 13,560.

Back at El Alamein, the rest of Eighth Army settled down to ‘tidying up’ the battlefield by salvaging as much equipment and materiel as possible. The soldiers of 9th Australian Division, who had been hemmed in on their dangerous salient for so long, were now free to roam the battlefield. Corporal C. W. Mears noted in his diary on 5 November:

“today we inspected the battlefield. Touring around fairly intoxicated. The war is not so bad after all. There are some lonely graves in the desert, both our own boys and the enemy, just a tin hat + cross to denote the fallen.”

Private J. A. Crawford also walked over ground that had recently been the scene of intense fighting :

“At last the armour has gone through. But for the little boy-faced Tommy there is no thrill of victory, no pride in a job splendidly done. He lies on his back as if asleep, still in my sweater, a hundred yards ahead of where I gave it to him. His chest is riddled but not very bloody; the holes are neat. Spandau Joe did not miss this time. Eighth Army had finally crushed the Panzer Army but the human cost to both sides had been grievous.”


One of the most enduring myths concerning the final battle at El Alamein is that when Churchill heard the news he ordered the church bells, silent since 1939, to be rung out all over Britain in celebration of the victory. The ringing of the bells has entered British legend along with the supposed thousand-gun barrage that opened the battle.

The reality is, unfortunately, more prosaic. The celebration of the victory was not as spontaneous a gesture as might be supposed. Alexander composed a statement announcing the Eighth Army’s victory over the Panzer Army on 4 November 1942 :

“The Axis Forces in the Western Desert after 12 days and nights of ceaseless attacks by our land and air forces are now in full retreat. Their disordered columns are being relentlessly attacked by our land forces and by the Royal Air Forces by day and night.”

He reported that Stumme had been killed, that von Thoma had been captured, and that ‘the enemy’s losses in killed and wounded have been exceptionally high’. Casey immediately sent this to Churchill in the hope that he would be able to make the ‘most of defeat of enemy in interests of TORCH’. It was now vital, with the invasion of French North Africa imminent, to influence French and Spanish opinion in favour of the Allies. Britain had finally proved to the world that her armed forces could win a battle. Alexander issued the statement to the press in Cairo that night and the British public heard the news on a special BBC news bulletin.

Churchill was, of course, delighted to learn of Rommel’s defeat. Alexander and his ‘brilliant lieutenant Montgomery’ (there was no mention of the ‘my Monty’ of just a few days before) had delivered the victory that Churchill had desired for so long. The Prime Minister was already thinking about the possible impact upon Torch and he informed Alexander :

“If the reasonable hopes of your telegram are maintained and wholesale captures of the enemy and a general retreat are apparent I propose to ring the bells all over Britain for the first time this war. Try to give me the moment to do this in the next few days. At least 20,000 prisoners would be necessary.”

Churchill’s reply sheds interesting light on the scale of victory he considered necessary to order a general celebration. The number of captives Churchill required paled into insignificance next to the 150,000 Italian prisoners that the Western Desert Force had taken during Operation Compass in 1941 but the victory at Alamein represented something much greater: it was clearly the end for the Axis in Africa.

The very next day, Alexander was able to signal the Prime Minister: ‘Ring out the Bells!’ Eighth Army had already captured more prisoners than Churchill’s minimum requirements. Churchill hesitated; he had not expected the battle to be so long or hard-won. When the Prime Minister mentioned to the CIGS his desire to ring the bells, Brooke ‘implored him to wait a little longer till we were quite certain that we should have no cause for regretting ringing them’. ‘Brooke’s mind was already turning to the prospects facing the invasion fleet nearing the coast of North Africa for Operation Torch. Churchill and the British people had already experienced so many shocks and disappointments. Churchill replied to Alexander that he would delay ringing the bells until it was known that Torch was a success, to avoid the eventuality of any ‘accident which would cause distress’.

On 8 November 1942, British and American troops landed on the shores of North Africa at Oran, Casablanca and Algiers. Operation Torch had begun, and, with it, the birth of full-scale operations by the Anglo-American alliance. The commitment of thousands of American troops to the Mediterranean theatre served final notice that Axis ambitions in North Africa were doomed, and, indeed, that Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany could not long endure. Yet Torch also represented the final eclipse of British independence in the Second World War. Churchill was well aware that Britain was now part of an Anglo-American coalition and the bells were rung in joint celebration for Alamein and Torch on November 15.

Although Eighth Army’s victory at El Alamein was crushing, it represented the end of Axis ambitions in Africa only because of the impact of the Torch landings. The Axis forces in Africa were now faced by threats from two directions. Units which might have rebuilt the German–Italian Panzer Army had to be sent to Tunisia. In these circumstances the Axis defence of Libya could not be prolonged.

Nonetheless, Montgomery was absolutely determined to ensure that there could be no revival in Rommel’s fortunes. In complete contrast to Rommel’s hasty logistic improvisations for his invasion of Egypt, the supply of Eighth Army during its rapid pursuit of the remnants of the Panzer Army was a masterpiece of forward planning. Even before the British offensive opened in October important planning meetings were held at General Headquarters Middle East to decide on the logistic support needed to sustain Eighth Army’s advance beyond El Alamein. Indeed, Eighth Army’s pursuit was even quicker than its retreat into Egypt had been. The forward elements of Eighth Army entered Tobruk on 13 November having covered 376 miles in ten days of pursuit. Agedabia was reached on 23 November after a total advance of 778 miles in 20 days. This was astonishingly rapid by any standards and it was sustained by one of the most efficient logistic systems hitherto devised. The Eighth Army halted in front of El Agheila until 12 December but this temporary pause was vital to ensure that the subsequent advance to Tripoli could be sustained. Rommel made a brief stand at El Agheila but on 23 January, three months after the start of the offensive at El Alamein, Eighth Army entered Tripoli. The desert pendulum would not swing again.

Alamein represented another kind of watershed. Great Britain, since its formation in 1707, had rarely gone to war except as part of a coalition. However, by 1942 Britain could no longer pretend to be the dominant partner in any coalition. The country was essentially bankrupt and dependent upon American largesse, through the Lend-Lease programme, to feed and clothe her population as well as to continue the war. In this sense, Alamein represented the final ‘British’ victory of the war and this fact explains much of the nostalgia which has surrounded the last ‘Battle of Egypt’ ever since.

Alamein also signalled the final collapse of the system of Imperial Defence. The 9th Australian Division paraded as an entire formation at Gaza on 22 December 1942 and was reviewed by an appreciative Alexander. Yet this marked the last time that an Australian formation would serve under British command in the Middle East. There was to be no repeat of the Australian experience in the Great War when, after service in the Mediterranean theatre at Gallipoli, Australian forces were transferred to France. Similar thinking had been behind the despatch of the Australian corps to Egypt in 1939 but, by 1942, John Curtin’s Australian government needed its troops to fight against the Japanese in the Pacific theatre. Curtin had in fact demanded the return of his division on 24 October and, after a flurry of telegrams, Churchill had had no choice but to agree to the request. On 19 November 1942, the New Zealand government also requested the return of its division but was persuaded to allow it to remain in the Mediterranean theatre. The 2nd New Zealand Division continued to serve in the Eighth Army until the end of the war in Europe. However, the negotiations between the British, Australian and New Zealand governments in late 1942 proved that the assumptions that had underpinned the concept of Imperial defence were now obsolete.

As quiet returned to what had been the battlefield at El Alamein, the Eighth Army had an opportunity to take stock of what had been learned during the fighting. While there had been a dearth of official pamphlets and publications detailing the Eighth Army’s experience between May and October 1942, a veritable flood of reports, lessons learned and other documents was produced after the final victory. There was a difference between assessing defeat and explaining victory. Eighth Army was justifiably proud of its success in breaching the Axis minefield defences and finally defeating Rommel’s panzer divisions. Thus, the concentration upon the October battle of Alamein at the expense of the more awkward experiences of the July fighting began as soon as the battle ended.

Eighth Army had, eventually, taken stock of its previous experience and used this knowledge to educate its units in a more coherent system of war. There is no doubt that the operational pause and static nature of the front at Alamein were vital for Eighth Army’s development. The extended lull had seen the re-education of Britain’s desert army on an enormous scale. It is also clear that the three battles of El Alamein cannot be seen as separate and distinct events but, crucially, as an important continuous experience in the development of the Eighth Army.

Eighth Army learned more from its defeats than the Panzer Army had ever learned from its victories. The Panzer Army trained and fought with well-proven tactics but its early string of victories meant that it had stopped learning. After the battle, the main British report on the lessons from Lightfoot criticised the tactics of the Axis forces, arguing that the enemy:

maintained and fought in mixed battle groups long after their usefulness had ended. His counter attacks were piecemeal and bore no resemblance to his massed effort of the past, and he was in fact forced to repeat many of our faults of certain earlier operations. Ultimately, the Panzer Army was unable to adapt its tactics to less favourable circumstances.

The profusion of reports demonstrated just how much Eighth Army had learned during its sojourn at El Alamein. They covered every conceivable military subject but the main developments influenced British fighting methods for the rest of the war. The reconcentration of artillery, which had begun under Auchinleck, meant that ‘artillery correctly handled is a battle winning factor of first importance. It dominated the Alamein battle.’ After experiencing the doldrums in the previous desert campaigns, the Royal Artillery had regained its central place in the British Army’s method of fighting. The ‘dominating influence’ of the minefield had been overcome by the mine-gapping techniques developed by the Royal Engineers. The importance of complete coordination between the army and air force ‘bred of knowledge and mutual understanding of each other’s problems and methods’ meant that the Desert Air Force had been able to provide an unprecedented level of battlefield support to the army. The infantry, through the development of robust battle drills and proven techniques for consolidation, had become ‘capable of attacking by night with the bayonet against any form of defence’.

The lessons for the armour were less clear. The 24th Armoured Brigade report complained that ‘many principles of armoured tactics had to be violated’ during the battle. Arguments concerning the proper use of armour at Alamein continued for many years. The exception to these problems was the 23rd Armoured Brigade. Its intensive training with the infantry divisions of 30th Corps meant that, with certain exceptions, the brigade had supplied flexible and close tank support ‘with excellent results’. The path of the 23rd Armoured Brigade from disaster in July to the ‘excellent results’ of October and November illustrates the process of development that all units of Eighth Army underwent under Montgomery’s careful training schemes during the summer and autumn of 1942.

It was the combination of all these developments into a complex and interlocking system of war that enabled Eighth Army finally to master its opponent. Subsequent battles at Wadi Akarit and Mareth Line in Tunisia demonstrated that Eighth Army had become a confident and effective fighting formation. It did so not by copying German tactics but, as David French has commented, by finding its own solutions to its problems and fighting in a distinctively British manner. Eighth Army came to rely upon firepower as well as fighting skill and careful movement rather than risky manoeuvre. This sort of success may not have looked as dramatic as Rommel’s offensive dashes to Tobruk and Alamein that looks dashing in popular histıory and media, but it was nonetheless profound.

British and Commonwealth fighting methods for the rest of the war especially in Mediterranean and European Theaters generally followed the pattern set by El Alamein. Under Montgomery’s now considerable influence, ‘set-piece’ attacks in which infantry attacked with the support of concentrated artillery fire became the favoured approach. British forces also came to rely on close cooperation with the air arm which could generally guarantee air superiority. The British use of armour, however, was never as spectacular as the early German successes or as effective as the later Soviet offensives. The lack of a clear doctrine for the breakthrough battle remained an unsolved problem for the rest of the war. However, the development and application of this system owed as much to Eighth Army’s previous combat experience and the lack of combined arms doctrine and cavalry culture mindset of British armor due to pre war neglect by British political leaders and military establishment as to Montgomery’s style of command.