Second Battle of Alamein , Preperation , Planning , Training


-Memoirs - Field Marshall Montgomery
-The Battle of North Africa , El Alamein , Turning Point of World War II - Glyn Harper
-Pendelum of War , Three Battles of Alamein - Niall Barr
-The World Arms (Readers Digest)
-Eighth Army’s Greatest Victories - Adrian Turner
-Britain’s War in Desert - David Braddock
-Howard Kippenberger , Dauntless Spirit - Denis Mclean
-Foxes of Desert - Paul Carell
-Rommel Papers - Lidell Hart
-Montgomery , Master of Battle 1942-1944 - Nigel Hamilton
-The Alexander Memoirs - Field Marshal Alexander

Memoirs (Field Marshal Montgomery) :

ALAM HALFA had interfered with the preparations for our own offensive, and delayed us. But the dividend in other respects had been tremendous. Before Alam Haifa there was already a willingness from below to do all that was asked, because of the grip from above. And for the same reason there was a rise in morale, which was cumulative. I think officers and men knew in their hearts that if we lost at Alam Haifa we would probably have lost Egypt. They had often been told before that certain things would happen; this time they wanted to be shown, not just to be told. At Alam Haifa the Eighth Army had been told, and then shown; and from the showing came the solid rocklike confidence in the high command, which was never to be lost again.

The basic problem that confronted us after the Battle of Alam Haifa was a difficult one. We were face to face with Rommel’s forces between the sea and the Qattara Depression, a distance of about 45 miles. The enemy was strengthening his defences to a degree previously unknown in the desert, and these included deep and extensive minefields. There was no open flank. The problem was: First— to punch a hole in the enemy positions. Second— to pass 10 Corps, strong in armour and mobile troops, through this hole into enemy territory. Third— then to develop operations so as to destroy Rommel’s forces. This would be an immense undertaking. How could we obtain surprise? It seemed almost impossible to conceal from the enemy the fact that we intended to launch an attack. I decided to plan for tactical surprise, and to conceal from the enemy the exact places where the blows would fall and the exact times. This would involve a great deception plan and I will describe later some of the measures we took.

Next, a full moon was necessary. The minefield problem was such that the troops must be able to see what they were doing. A waning moon was not acceptable since I envisaged a real “dog-fight” for at least a week before we finally broke out; a waxing moon was essential. This limited the choice to one definite period each month. Owing to the delay caused to our preparations by Rommel’s attack, we could not be ready for the September moon and be sure of success. There must be no more failures. Officers and men of the Eighth Army had a hard life and few pleasures; and they put up with it. All they asked for was success, and I was determined to see they got it this time in full measure. The British people also wanted real success; for too long they had seen disaster or at best only partial success. But to gain complete success we must have time; we had to receive a quantity of new equipment, and we had to get the army trained to use it, and also rehearsed in the tasks which lay ahead. I had promised the Eighth Army on arrival that I would not launch our offensive till we were ready. I could not be ready until October. Full moon was the 24th October. I said I would attack on the night of 23 rd October, and notified Alexander accordingly. The come-back from Whitehall was immediate. Alexander received a signal from the Prime Minister to the effect that the attack must be in September, so as to synchronise with certain Russian offensives and with Allied landings which were to take place early in November at the western end of the north African coast (Operation TORCH). Alexander came to see me to discuss the reply to be sent. I said that our preparations could not be completed in time for a September offensive, and an attack then would fail: if we waited until October, I guaranteed complete success. In my view it would be madness to attack in September. Was I to do so? Alexander backed me up whole-heartedly as he always did, and the reply was sent on the lines I wanted. I had told Alexander privately that, in view of my promise to the soldiers, I refused to attack before October; if a September attack was ordered by Whitehall, they would have to get someone else to do it. My stock was rather high after Alam Haifa! We heard no more about a September attack.


The gossip is, so I am told, that the plans for Alamein, and for the conduct of the war in Africa after that battle, were made by Alexander at G.H.Q. Middle East and that I merely carried them out. This is not true. All the plans for Alamein and afterwards were made at Eighth Army H.Q. I always kept Alexander fully informed; he never commented in detail on my plans or suggested any of his own; he trusted me and my staff absolutely. Once he knew what we wanted he supported us magnificently from behind; he never refused any request; without that generous and unfailing support, we could never have done our part. He was the perfect Commander-in-Chief to have in the Middle East, so far as I was concerned. He trusted me.

The initial plan was made in the first days of September; immediately after the Battle of Alam Haifa was over. This plan was to attack the enemy simultaneously on both flanks. The main attack would be made by 30 Corps (Leese) in the north and here I planned to punch two corridors through the enemy defences and minefields. 10 Corps (Lumsden) would then pass through these corridors and would position itself on important ground astride the enemy supply routes; Rommel’s armour would have to attack it, and would, I hoped, be destroyed in the process. The sketch map shows the plan. It will be seen that the defended area, including minefields, through which the northern corridor was to be punched was 5 miles deep.

In the south, 13th Corps (Horrocks) was to break into the enemy positions and operate with 7th Armoured Division with a view to drawing enemy armour in that direction; this would make it easier for 10th Corps to get out into the open in the north. 13th Corps was not to suffer heavy casualties, and in particular 7th Armoured Division was to remain “in being” and available for the mobile operations after the break-out had been achieved. It will be noted that my plan departed from the traditional desert tactics of staging the main offensive on the south or inland flank, and then wheeling towards the sea. I considered that if my main attack was in the south there was only one direction it could take after the break-in—and that was northwards. The fact that a certain tactic had always been employed by all commanders in the desert seemed to me a good reason for doing something else. I planned to attack neither on my left flank nor on my right flank, but somewhere right of centre; having broken in, I could then direct my forces to the right or to the left as seemed most profitable. This decision was not popular with the staff at G.H.Q. and pressure was brought on my Chief of Staff to influence me to change my mind. Alexander never joined in the argument; he understood all my proposals and backed them to the hilt.

I was watching the training carefully and it was becoming apparent to me that the Eighth Army was very untrained. The need for training had never been stressed. Most commanders had come to the fore by skill in fighting and because no better were available; many were above their ceiling, and few were good trainers. By the end of September there were serious doubts in my mind whether the troops would be able to do what was being demanded; the plan was simple but it was too ambitious. If I was not careful, divisions and units would be given tasks which might end in failure because of the inadequate standard of training. The Eighth Army had suffered some 80,000 casualties since it was formed, and little time had been spent in training the replacements.

The moment I saw what might happen I took a quick decision. On the 6th October, just over two weeks before the battle was to begin, I changed the plan. My initial plan had been based on destroying Rommel’s armour; the remainder of his army, the un-armoured portion, could then be dealt with at leisure. This was in accordance with the accepted military thinking of the day. I decided to reverse the process and thus alter the whole conception of how the battle was to be fought. My modified plan now was to hold off, or contain, the enemy armour while we carried out a methodical destruction of the infantry divisions holding the defensive system. These un-armoured divisions would be destroyed by means of a “crumbling” process, the enemy being attacked from the flank and rear and cut off from their supplies. These operations would be carefully organised from a series of firm bases and would be within the capabilities of my troops. I did not think it likely that the enemy armour would remain inactive and watch the gradual destruction of all the unarmoured divisions; it would be launched in heavy counter-attacks. This would suit us very well, since the best way to destroy the enemy armour was to entice it to attack our armour in position. I aimed to get my armour beyond the area of the “crumbling” “crumbling” operations. I would then turn the enemy minefields to our advantage by using them to prevent the enemy armour from interfering with our operations; this would be done by-closing the approaches through the minefields with our tanks, and we would then be able to proceed relentlessly with our plans. The success of the whole operation would depend largely on whether 30th Corps could succeed in the “break-in” battle and establish the corridors through which the armoured divisions of 10th Corps must pass. I was certain that if we could get the leading armoured brigades through the corridors without too great delay, then we would win the battle. Could we do this? In order to make sure, I planned to launch the armoured divisions of 10th Corps into the corridors immediately behind the leading infantry divisions of 30th Corps and before I knew the corridors were clear. Furthermore, I ordered that if the corridors were not completely clear on the morning of D+1, the 24th October, the armoured divisions would fight their own way out into the open beyond the western limit of the minefields. This order was not popular with the armoured units but I was determined to see that it was carried out to the letter.

It will be seen later how infirmity of purpose on the part of certain senior commanders in carrying out this order nearly lost us the battle.

I mentioned in Chapter 8 that there was a Major Williams on my intelligence staff who appeared to me to be of outstanding ability. To all who served with me in the war he was known always as Bill Williams. In a conversation one day about this time, he pointed out to me that the enemy German and Italian troops were what he called “corsetted”; that is, Rommel had so deployed his German infantry and parachute troops that they were positioned between, and in some places behind, his Italian troops all along the front, the latter being unreliable when it came to hard fighting. Bill Williams’s idea was that if we could separate the two we would be very well placed, as we could smash through a purely Italian front without any great difficulty. This very brilliant analysis and idea was to be a major feature of the master plan for the “crumbling” operations, and it paved the way to final victory at Alamein.


The object of the deception plan was twofold:
(a) To conceal from the enemy as long as possible our intention to take the offensive.
(b) When this could no longer be concealed, to mislead him about both the date and the sector in which our main thrust was to be made.

This was done by the concealment of real intentions and real moves in the north, and by advertising false signs of activity in the south.

The whole deception was organised on an “army” basis; tremendous attention to detail was necessary throughout, since carelessness in any one area might have compromised the whole scheme. To carry out such a gigantic bluff in the time available required detailed planning, considerable quantities of labour and transport, mass production of deception devices at the base, a large camouflage store with trained staff, and the co-ordinated movement of many hundreds of vehicles into selected areas. Because all these essentials were provided the scheme was entirely successful, and great credit is due to the camouflage organisation in the Middle East at the time.

A feature of the “visual deception” was the creation and continued preservation of the layout and density of vehicles required for the assault in 30 Corps sector in the north; this was achieved by the 1st October by the placing in position of the necessary dummy lorries, guns, ammunition limbers, etc. During the concentration of attacking divisions just before the day of the attack, the dummies were replaced at night by the actual operational vehicles. The rear areas, whence the attacking divisions and units came, were maintained at their full visual vehicle density by the erection of dummies as the real vehicles moved out. The reason for all this visual deception was that enemy air photographs should continue to reveal the same story. The coordinating brain behind this part of the plan was Charles Richardson, a very able officer in the planning staff of Eighth Army H.Q. (now Major-General C. L. Richardson, recently Commandant of the Military College of Science).

In preparation for the offensive, dumps had to be made in the northern sector. For example, a large dump was created near the station of Alamein. This was to contain 600 tons of supplies, 2000 tons of P.O.L. (petrol, oil, lubricants), and 420 tons of engineer stores. It was of the utmost importance that the existence of these dumps should not become known to the enemy. The site was open and featureless except for occasional pits and trenches. Disguise provided the most satisfactory method of hiding the dumps, and the whole endeavour was a triumph for the camouflage organisation.

Another example I will quote was the dummy pipeline in the south to cause the enemy to believe the main blow would be delivered on that flank. It was started late in September and progress in the work was timed to indicate its completion early in November. The dummy pipeline was laid for a length of about 20 miles, from a point just south of the real water point at Bir Sadi to a point 4 miles east of Samaket Gaballa. The pipe-trench was excavated in the normal way. Five miles of dummy railway track, made from petrol cans, were used for piping. The “piping” was strung out alongside the open trench. When each 5-mile section of the trench was filled in, the “piping” was collected and laid out alongside the next section. Dummy pump houses were erected at three points; water points and overhead storage reservoirs were made at two of these points. Work began on the 26th September and ceased on the 22nd October; it was carried out by one section of 578 Army Troops Company.

There were of course other measures such as the careful planting of false information for the enemy’s benefit, but I have confined this outline account to visual deception in which camouflage played the major part. The whole plan was given the code name BERTRAM and those responsible for it deserve the highest praise: for it succeeded.

The RAF was to play a tremendous part in this battle. Desert Air Force aimed to gain gradual ascendancy over the enemy fighters, and to have that ascendancy complete by the 23rd October. On that day the RAF was to carry out blitz attacks against enemy airfields in order to finish off the opposing air forces, and particularly to prevent air reconnaissance. At zero hour the whole bomber effort was to be directed against the enemy artillery, and shortly before daylight on the 24th October I hoped the whole of the air effort would be available to co-operate intimately in the land battle, as our fighter ascendancy by that time would be almost absolute.

I issued very strict orders about morale, fitness, and determined leadership, as follows:


“This battle for which we are preparing will be a real rough house and will involve a very great deal of hard fighting. If we are successful it will mean the end of the war in North Africa, apart from general ‘clearing-up’ operations; it will be the turning point of the whole war. Therefore we can take no chances. Morale is the big thing in war. We must raise the morale of our soldiery to the highest pitch; they must be made enthusiastic, and must enter this battle with their tails high in the air and with the will to win. There must in fact be no weak links in our mental fitness. But mental fitness will not stand up to the stress and strain of battle unless troops are also physically fit. This battle may go on for many days and the final issue may well depend on which side can best last out and stand up to the buffeting, the ups and downs, and the continuous strain of hard battle fighting.

I am not convinced that our soldiery are really tough and hard. They are sunburnt and brown, and look very well; but they seldom move anywhere anywhere on foot and they have led a static life for many weeks. During the next months, therefore, it is essential to make our officers and men really fit; ordinary fitness is not enough, they must be made tough and hard.”


“This battle will involve hard and prolonged fighting. Our troops must not think that, because we have a good tank and very powerful artillery support, the enemy will all surrender. The enemy will not surrender, and there will be bitter fighting. The infantry must be prepared to fight and kill, and to continue doing so over a prolonged period. It is essential to impress on all officers that determined leadership will be very vital in this battle, as in any battle. There have been far too many unwoundcd prisoners taken in this war. We must impress on our officers, n.c.o.s and men that when they are cut off or surrounded, and there appears to be no hope of survival, they must organise themselves into a defensive locality and hold out where they are. By doing so they will add enormously to the enemy’s difficulties; they will greatly assist the development of our own operations; and they will save themselves from spending the rest of the war in a prison camp. Nothing is ever hopeless so long as troops have stout hearts, and have weapons and ammunition. These points must be got across now at once to all officers and men, as being applicable to all fighting.”


It was clear to me that we could not inform the troops about our offensive intentions until we stopped all leave and kept them out in the desert. I did not want to create excitement in Alexandria and Cairo by stopping leave with an official announcement. I therefore ordered as outlined below. Officers and men were to be brought fully into the operational picture as follows:

On the 21st October a definite stop was to be put to all journeys by officers or men to Alexandria, or other towns, for shopping or other reasons.

On the 21 st October unit commanders were to stop all leave, quietly and without publishing any written orders. They were to give as the reason that there were signs the enemy might attack in the full-moon period, and that we must have all officers and men present.

What it amounted to was that by the 21st October everyone, including the soldiers, would be fully in the operational picture; no one could leave the desert after that.

There was one exception. I ordered that troops in the foremost positions who might be raided by the enemy and captured, and all troops who might be on patrol in no-man’s-land, were not to be told anything about the attack till the morning of the 23 rd October: which was D-Day.

GROUPING FOR THE BATTLE This was the grouping of divisions opf Eighth Army for the beginning of the battle:

10th Corps (commanded by General Lumdsen in reserve) : 1st Armd Division , 10th Armd Division

13th Corps (commanded by General Horrocks in southern flank of Alamein line) : 44th Home Countries Division , 50th Northumberland Infantry Division , 7th Armd Division , 1st Free French Brigade and 1st Free Greek Brigade

30th Corps (commanded by General Leese on northern flank that would launch main attack LIGHTFOOT) : 51st Highland Division , 9th Australian Division , 2 New Zealand Division , 1st South African Division , 4th Indian Division , 23rd Armored Brigade (with Valentine tanks)


This was to be an “Army” battle, fought on an Army plan, and controlled carefully from Army H.Q. Therefore every commander down to the Lieut.-Colonel level must know the details of my plan, how I proposed to conduct the fight, and how his part fitted in to the master plan. Only in this way could perfect co-operation be assured. I therefore assembled these commanders and addressed them on the following dates:

30th Corps 19 October
13th Corps 19 October
10th Corps 20 October

I still have the notes I used for the three addresses: written in pencil in my own handwriting. I reproduce them here. I took a risk in saying “Whole affair about 12 days.” It will be seen that I originally wrote 10 days, and then erased the 10 and wrote 12. 12 was the better guess. It will also be seen in para. 2 that I couldn’t spell “Rommel” properly. Rough notes used by me for my address to all senior officers before the Battle of Alamein (code name “Lightfoot”)


  1. Back history since August. The Mandate; my plans to carry it out; the creation of 10 Corps.Leadership—equipment—training.
  2. Interference by Rommell on 31 Aug.
  3. The basic framework of the Army plan for Lightfoot as issued on 14 Sep. To destroy enemy armour. 4. Situation in early October. Untrained Army.Gradually realised that I must recast the plan so as to be within the capabilities of the troops.
    The new plan; the “crumbling” operations.A reversal of accepted methods.
  4. Key points in the Army plan. Three phases The dog-fight, and “crumbling” operations.The final “break” of the enemy.
    30th Corps - break in (fighting for position and tactical advantage)
    10th Corps - break out
    13th Corps - break in (fighting for position and tactical advantage)
  5. The enemy : His sickness among troops ; low unit strengths; small stocks of petrol
    Morale is good, except possibly Italians.
  6. Ourselves
    Immense superiority in guns, tanks, men. Can fight a prolonged battle, morale top of the line
  7. General conduct of the battle : Methodical progress; destroy enemy part by part, slowly and surely.

Shoot tanks and shoot Germans.,
He cannot last a long battle; we can.
We must therefore keep at it hard; no unit commander must relax the pressure; Organise ahead for a “dog-fight” of a week. Whole affair about 10-12 days. —Don’t expect spectacular results too soon.

  1. Operate from Firm Bases
    Quick Re Organisation at the Objectives
    Keep Balanced
    Maintain Offensive Eagerness
    Keep Up Pressure

    If we do all of these above , victory is certain

  2. Morale—measures to get it. Addresses. Every soldier in the Army a fighting soldier. No non-fighting man. All trained to kill Germans. My message to the troops.

  3. The issues at stake.

  4. The troops to remember what to say if they are captured. Rank, name, serial number.

Bernard Law Montgomery

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The Battle of North Africa , El Alamein , Turning Point of World War II - Glyn Harper

In September 1942, Winston Churchill was desperate for a British victory. He craved it above anything else. As Churchill explained in his history of the Second World War, “I had now been twenty-eight months at the head of affairs, during which we had sustained an almost unbroken series of military defeats.” These defeats, commencing with the fall of France in 1940 and including the recent loss of Tobruk, “all these were galling links in a chain of misfortune and frustration to which no parallel could be found in our history.” Churchill later admitted to his doctor that September and October 1942 were “the most anxious months of the entire war.”

It is hardly surprising, then, that Churchill put considerable pressure upon his new command team in North Africa to deliver him the victory in battle he so anxiously wanted. On September 11, Churchill wrote to Alexander demanding to know when Eighth Army would launch its next offensive. He added a chiding note that, “I had hoped to have heard from you before.” Six days later, he sent a similar message. Churchill informed Alexander that:

“I am anxiously awaiting some account of your intentions. My understanding with you was the fourth week in September. Since then you have stated that the recent battle, which greatly weakened the enemy, has caused delay in regrouping, etc. I do not wish to know either your plan or the exact date, but I must know which week it falls in, otherwise I cannot form the necessary judgements affecting the general war.”

This pressure from Churchill caused some concern for Alexander, as Montgomery was adamant that he could not launch his offensive until late October. It was just not possible to reorganize and train Eighth Army to the required standard for an offensive in September 1942. Also, a full moon would be required for a night attack, which would occur around October 24. But this was more than a month later than Churchill wanted. This was precisely the reason Alexander had not communicated this intention to Churchill, but Churchill’s two messages forced his hand. The Eighth Army Chief of Staff, Major General Freddie de Guingand, recalled years later how Montgomery solved the problem for Alexander. According to de Guingand:

“Alex showed Montgomery a signal he’d just had from the Prime Minister saying we must attack in September and that it was absolutely essential. Alex said to Monty, “What shall I answer?” and Monty said, “I’m not going to attack in September.” So he said to me, “Freddie, give me your pen.” He wrote in his very clear handwriting and said, “Send this to the Prime Minister.” The first point he made was that Rommel was attacking on 31st August and it would cause delay in our preparations, secondly that training and getting used to the new tanks and equipment would take longer than September before we were ready and he finished up saying if we are forced to attack in September it will probably fail. If we wait until October then it will be a complete success. And he said, “Alex, send that off to Winston,” and Alex read it and said, “Yes, I will,” which he did. Any Prime Minister getting a document like that from the military commanders, he couldn’t go against it. If he forced us to attack in September and it failed then there it was on record that the principal military authority said it would fail.”

Churchill received this decision from Alexander on September 19 and it was “unwelcome news.” He expressed his displeasure to Alexander, stating that he was “greatly distressed to receive such bad news for which I was not prepared having regard to your strength compared with the enemy.” Churchill also expressed his displeasure to the CIGS, General Sir Alan Brooke, interrupting Brooke’s brief grouse shooting holiday in the country to do so. Churchill was a bit nonplussed when Brooke informed him that he thought Alexander’s reasons for delaying the offensive “were excellent.”8 But Montgomery was correct. Having recently replaced the senior command team and with this team having just repelled the latest German offensive in North Africa, Churchill had no choice but to accept their decision to delay the offensive until late October. On September 23, Churchill informed Alexander that:

“We are in your hands, and of course a victorious battle makes amends for much delay. Whatever happens we shall back you up and see you through.”

It was Imperial Chief of Sraff General Sir Alan Brooke (Monty’s mentor and patron) who was responsible for Churchill’s last sentence offering his full support. Brooke had been concerned that Alexander would feel that Churchill was losing confidence in him, which was “a most disconcerting thing before a battle.” After an unpleasant hour-long harangue from Churchill about the problems with British generalship, Brooke “succeeded in getting a very definite tempering of the message.” Montgomery now had a free hand and, more significantly, the time to plan and train for his first offensive as Eighth Army commander.

There were three essential tasks Montgomery needed to achieve in the space of just over seven weeks. First, Eighth Army needed to be conditioned to desert fighting. This would entail a period of intensive training designed to harden the men for battle in this inhospitable terrain. This training also needed to focus on offensive action and, in particular, the infantry needed to become adept in weapon handling and in mine-clearing activities. Second, the armored formations needed to be trained to be part of a combined arms team and for their new role as a corps de chasse. Third, Montgomery’s plan for the offensive needed to be explained to all those taking part so that every individual knew his place in it. These tasks meant that the weeks of September and October 1942 were filled with frantic activity. Montgomery also used this period to get rid of senior commanders in whom he had no confidence. Lieutenant General W.H. Ramsden, 30th Corps commander and one-time acting Army Commander, was one of the first to go. He was replaced by the newly arrived Sir Oliver Leese, who was an able Guardsman but “had never had a major field command.” Several more replacements, including a new commander for 7th Armoured Division (a very insubordinate General Renton who wished to unlewash armor onstantly was replaced by a more subordinate and meticilous organiser General Harding), soon followed.

Montgomery was renowned as a trainer of formations and this new command was to be no exception. He took personal responsibility for training in Eighth Army. He later admitted that prior to the battle, the low standard of training in Eighth Army was “my great anxiety.” As soon as the battle for Alam Halfa was over, Montgomery drafted and issued Eighth Army Training Memorandum No. 1, which contained his training instructions. More than this though, he “saw personally that all three Corps of 8th Army acted upon them.” Montgomery’s Training Memorandum was comprehensive. It contained fundamental doctrinal principles of all arms cooperation in battle. It addressed the fundamental importance of morale and fighting spirit and the necessity of good junior leadership. It addressed the various roles of armor, artillery, engineers, signallers, and infantry. It gave practical advice on the formation of tactical headquarters, night movement, bridging minefields, medical arrangements, passing on vital information, and the importance of troops’ mental and physical fitness. He even included advice on maintaining personal hygiene in the desert. As Montgomery’s biographer Nigel Hamilton records, in these training instructions, “nothing was left to chance.” Hamilton wrote:

“Certainly no successful British field commander had ever evinced the genius for training that Montgomery did; and the victory of Alamein would result not from simple superiority of arms, but from an army which was capable of using them. Every detail of the Training Instructions would play its part in preparing 8th Army for the battle of Alamein only six weeks away; and every technique ignored would be paid for in blood.”

That blood would be spilt primarily by Eighth Army’s infantry formations. For them, as was to be expected, the weeks before the final battle of El Alamein was a frantic period of hard realistic training. This training culminated in full-scale rehearsals for their role in the attack. These were designed to simulate the exact conditions the soldiers would face during the battle. The full-scale rehearsals undertaken by each infantry division was critical to the development of Montgomery’s plan. At long last the infantry divisions, and Eighth Army as a whole, were fully tailoring their training exercises to the plan of attack. It was a critical change. As Niall Barr has commented, these full-scale rehearsals “ensured that each of the infantry was properly trained and prepared to achieve the ambitious objectives set for them.”

The Report on Operations prepared by 9th Australian Division outlined the purpose of this training period. It stated that:
Training was directed to –

(a) Further toughening and hardening of troops;
(b) Developing battle drills suited to the operation;
(c) Making the exercises so similar to the initial attack that every man and officer unwittingly became familiar with the part he was to play.

The battle drills stressed all-arms cooperation and effective weapon handling. Considerable time was spent practicing methods of clearing minefields. These needed to be clearly marked, the cleared lanes visible at night. A training exercise conducted by the Australian 2/43rd Battalion overnight on September 23 “was completed in a satisfactory manner,” according to its War Diary. The exercise, however, had produced twenty-six separate learning points on infantry and tank cooperation so that the exercise was immediately repeated with better results. However, the War Diary noted that “much more trg [training] is required.” Over the next weeks, the men of 2/43 Battalion received much more training, especially “gradually lengthening route marches” as a way of “hardening” the men.

The Commander’s Summary in the War Diary of the Australian 2/17th Battalion neatly outlined what was achieved in a very short space of time:

“For the three weeks preceding operations the bn trained continuously to fit itself for the job that everyone knew was ahead. Div exercised No 2 based on the plans for the initial attack on night 23/24 OCT was done three times in all.”

The full-scale rehearsals for the operation were taken very seriously. For example, the Australian 9th Division carried out a full-scale rehearsal of their role in the attack on the night of October 18. The very next morning, they did it again. The War Diary of 2/24 Battalion recorded of this rehearsal:

"Preparations for exercise, though hurried, had been made in great detail. An actual section of the GERMAN front was reproduced on the ground complete in every detail with wire, mines and booby traps. This embodied all known details of the section to be later attacked. Patrol infm, aerial photographs and OP observations were all collated and the disposns as reproduced were, as was later proved, an almost exact replica of the enemy front.
Many lessons were learned to be put into practical use at a later date. 2 ORs evacuated to hosp."

The War Diary of 2/48 Battalion recorded the strain of repeating the exercise:

The bn returned to the leaguer area and after breakfast the exercise was repeated in daylight to give all ranks a clearer picture of what had been done at night and to show the necessity for accurate pacing and the difficulty of maintaining direction in the dark. This second exercise was very strenuous because of the fact that very little sleep had been had during the night and because of the hy [heavy] man loads which all ranks carried.

The War Diary also noted that the Divisional commander, Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Morshead (nicknamed Ming the Merciless) , “witnessed both the day and night exercise.” The end result of this training was that by October 22, “the men were fit and keen for their job and each man knew his part. There was a definite feeling of confidence in the bn.”

In an effort to bring the men of the recently arrived 51st Highland Division up to the standard required, some of the units of this division were attached to the Australians for training. Taking part in the exercise with 2/43 Australian Infantry Battalion on September 23, the one that had produced the twenty-six learning points on infantry/tank cooperation, were thirty soldiers from 5/7 Gordon Highlanders. The Australian 2/28th Battalion had a party from the Black Watch arrive on September 21 and these men were distributed amongst its rifle companies. The 2/28th War Diary recorded that the Scots visitors were received “with interest and pleasure.” Members of the Black Watch remained with 2/28 Battalion until the end of September, when they were replaced with men from the 5th Seaforth Regiment. On September 14, 1942, the Australian 2/48th Battalion dispatched yet another of its Rifle Companies to attend Eighth Army’s Mine School. The next day, the Commanding Officer and Adjutant of the 5th Camerons Regiment arrived to inspect the Battalion’s defenses and to discuss “attachments of offrs and ORs from 5 Camerons for experience.” The 5th Cameron soldiers arrived a week later.

These attachments were part of an intensive training period for 51st Highland Division. An officer in the 1st Gordon Highlanders recalled that for “five months since our arrival in North Africa … we had been training for this action and in the last month unbeknown to us, specifically for this Night Attack.” Royal Engineer officer John Laing recalled years later how the engineers had devoted most of their training to the essential task of mine clearance. Laing wrote of this time:

“Not knowing the exact date of the start of the attack, we kept on a high state of alert. A method of clearing minefields had been worked out over the past few months, known as the Eighth Army gapping drill, and this we practised assiduously making sure that every officer, NCO and Sapper knew his place and function.”

Corporal E.G. Waggett of the Royal Army Service Corps managed to rejoin his unit at Berg el Arab after a long journey with another unit through the Nile Delta. This diversion had been “an extraordinary wasteful journey since it accomplished nothing.” But back with his unit in 13 Corps, Waggett had a pleasant surprise. He recorded at the time:

“Following that, one day we had a visit from Genl. Horrocks, G.O.C. 13 Corps, who told us in an address all about it and what they were planning to do in the coming great battle. It has been the policy of the Army Commander in this campaign to keep the troops well informed, which appears to be a good idea judging by the results.”

Engineer officer Geoffrey Giddings also commented on the “good results” of keeping the men informed. He wrote that knowing Montgomery’s battle plan was “most important of all.” It meant that “We all knew the part we were to play—and what a sense of confidence and purpose that gave to us all.” As an engineer, Giddings’ main task would be to clear a path through the minefields. Issued with new “Polish” mine detectors, the engineers devised a gap-clearing drill that was effective at locating, marking, and lifting both enemy and British mines. As Giddings recalled, “We practised and practised by day, blind folded and at night so that we became proficient at it.”

Prior to commencing their training, after the strains of First Alamein and Alam Halfa, Lieutenant General Freyberg commander of New Zealand Division insisted that the New Zealanders have a period of rest prior to preparing for this next battle. After a very eventful fortnight of leave, which saw “a record number of cases of bad behaviour” reported, 2nd New Zealand Division moved twenty miles south of the Burg el Arab rest area to begin an intensive period of hard training. The Division was now reinforced by the inclusion of 9th Armoured Brigade and by additional regiments of field and medium artillery. Training was very tough, with live firing exercises used on many occasions, which resulted in some casualties. Brigadier Kippenberger commented on this training:

“It was not going to be easy and we spared no pains. I have never worked or thought harder than in these weeks, nor have I ever worked troops so hard; and all commanders and staff did the same.”

Freyberg recorded:

“Time being short, we started our training with a full scale Divisional rehearsal under conditions as similar as possible to the actual attack we were to carry out later to capture Miteiriya Ridge. Complete plans and preparations were made for the “attack” which we carried out by moonlight on 26 September. Minefields had been laid in the positions we expected to find them.”

The simulated attack involved the infantry brigades “laying up” during the day and crossing live minefields under an artillery barrage in conditions as close to the reality of battle as possible. The lessons derived from the rehearsal and the brigade and battalion that followed “formed the basis of our planning for the attack.” Freyberg wrote, “The operation required a high degree of training of all arms and most careful timing.”

Part of this “all arms” training of the New Zealanders involved working closely with its embedded armored brigade. The 2nd New Zealand Division was to have a dual role in the battle, being part of the infantry attack during the break-in phase and then being part of the corps de chasse during the pursuit. Its unique structure made it more suitable for the mobile role, but its experienced infantry was needed for the break-in, too. Before the battle commenced, Freyberg explained the Division’s new structure to the New Zealand Government. He assured them that, with its three tank regiments, the 2nd New Zealand Division was now “more powerful than a Panzer Division.” Freyberg commented further that the days of New Zealand infantry being overrun by enemy armor “are I hope past.” Freyberg was more forthright with a former colleague, writing:

“In my opinion we will be the most formidable fighting force in the world … I do trust that the days of being overrun by German tanks are over—there they should be. We have had a very difficult two-and-a-half years fighting tanks with inadequate weapons.”

More occurred with the New Zealanders than just training. Freyberg took every effort to see that the British 9th Armoured Brigade, with its new Sherman and its obsolete Crusader tanks, was fully integrated within the 2nd New Zealand Division. Each infantry brigade carried out brigade and battalion exercises with the armored regiments and social events were held wherein officers of all brigades mixed freely. The regiments of 9th Armoured Brigade put the New Zealand Division’s distinctive fern-leaf emblem on their tanks (and it is still used by some of the regiments), mixed ceremonial parades were held, and joint exercises and Tactical Exercise Without Troops (TEWTS) were conducted so that members of all the formations got to know one another well. As Kippenberger recorded:

“Both they and we were resolved that there was going to be no more nonsense about tanks and infantry failing to cooperate…. The result was that throughout the battle 9th Armoured Brigade gave us magnificent support regardless of their terrible losses. No formation can have made greater sacrifices for the victory.”

In fact, 9th Armoured Brigade was the only armored formation consistently to follow directives in the forthcoming battle and take all its stated objectives throughout. Kippenberger recalled after the war that while the New Zealanders were “moderately confident of much better things” from the British armor before El Alamein, in 9th Armoured Brigade, they had “complete and justified confidence.” 9th Armoured Brigade was well suited for its role with the New Zealanders. The three regiments were all Yeomanry cavalry regiments that had been sent to Palestine in 1939. They had seen action during the Syrian campaign in 1941, but had not fought in the Western Desert. Their commander Brigadier John Currie was both open minded and had “a reputation for fearlessness in action.” He would be killed by shellfire in Normandy on June 26, 1944. Not being part of the armored clique of Eighth Army meant that 9 Armoured Brigade “had few ingrained prejudices about tank-infantry cooperation.” But the Brigade had some hurdles to overcome. It was inexperienced in desert warfare and had only just received the latest Sherman tanks. Freyberg and Currie had just on six weeks to prepare this fresh armored brigade for the largest set piece battle to be fought in North Africa.

Most of Eighth Army’s armor was placed in the newly created 10th Corps. This was Montgomery’s corps de chasse, the Army’s armored spearhead which was modeled on Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps. It consisted initially of two armored divisions, the 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions. Once the breakthrough had been made, the 2nd New Zealand Division was to join 10th Corps, providing its motorized infantry. This Corps was Montgomery’s concept and it was meant to provide Eighth Army with formidable strike power. Montgomery regarded it as his “corps d’elite.” But from its inception, the corps de chasse caused Montgomery considerable headaches. The first problem was to find a suitable Corps commander. Montgomery wanted Brian Horrocks for the job, but Horrocks, an infantry officer, was averse to take the command. Horrocks had already experienced considerable friction with armored commanders during the Alam Halfa battle and was not keen for more. Reluctantly, Montgomery appointed Lieutenant General Herbert Lumsden to this critical role. Lumsden had commanded the 1st Armoured Division in previous desert campaigns and, despite repeatedly letting down infantry formations , disobeying orders and acting in an insubordinate manner , he was “highly spoken of in Middle East circles.” Montgomery had his doubts about Lumsden, but was prepared to give him the chance to prove himself. He later wrote of Lumsden, “I hardly knew him and so could not agree with complete confidence; but I accepted him on the advice of others.”

The second problem occurred during 10th Corps’ training for the battle ahead. Much time was devoted to moving at night, something British tanks had not tried before. While it was recognized that such movement and the fighting that followed would entail working alongside the infantry divisions of 30th Corps, “at no point did the rehearsals actually include training with those divisions.” While all the rehearsals conducted resulted in a considerable number of learning points to be addressed, rather than find solutions to the problems being encountered, these convinced the senior armored commanders that Montgomery’s plan couldn’t be done. Therefore, they would not follow it. Lumsden expressed this view at several planning conferences, much to the alarm of the senior infantry commanders. He described armor as being “very brittle”(!) and being prone “to break very easily.” Therefore, he had no intention of “breaking” his armor on minefields, which the infantry should clear first. This would destroy the corps de chasse before it even got started. Major General de Guingand recalled an incident that he felt compelled to report to Montgomery:

"Monty had been called away to give a lecture at the Staff College, Haifa. Lumsden was commander of 10th Corps, and I thought I’d better go over and listen to what he’d got to say. And he got up: “Monty’s plan—there’s one point I don’t agree with: that tanks should be used to force their way out of the minefields. Tanks must be used as cavalry: they must exploit the situation and not be kept as supporters of infantry. So I don’t propose to do that. So after the conference I went up to Herbert and I said: “Look here, my dear boy, you can’t do this, you know Monty. You must know him well enough—he won’t permit disobedience to his orders.” And he said: “Oh, leave that to me.” “Well, I warn you,” I made clear. Monty came back the next day and I repeated to him this conference. He said: “Whistle in Lumsden …”

Montgomery’s biographer Nigel Hamilton labels the attitude of Lumsden and the senior armored commanders as “tantamount to mutiny” and believes it showed that Eighth Army was still very much a prisoner of its past defeats and failures. He goes further and describes the creation of the corps de chasse as “a mistake, for rather than promoting a really true professional armoured formation of the calibre of the Afrika Korps it encouraged the amateur independence that characterised British armoured units.” Despite this “rebellion,” Montgomery had no choice but to stick with Lumsden and 10th Corps as his corps d’elite. But despite his cajoling and direct orders, 10th Corps never achieved its objectives in the break-in or dog fight phase of the battle ahead. After the battle, Montgomery replaced Lumsden with Horrocks and abandoned his corps de chasse concept. (even Monty was learning by trial and error at thia stage)

While the armored formations balked at their part in Montgomery’s plan, the artillery formations relished the opportunity to demonstrate what concentrated firepower could do. The officer in charge of Eighth Army artillery was Major General Sidney Kirkman, a Montgomery appointment brought in from UK. At his initial meeting with Kirkman, Montgomery had outlined his battle plan and told Kirkman to see that “the gunner plan is absolutely as good as it can be—it’s one of the most important factors.” Kirkman replied, “Yes sir, I understand” and “that was that.” Montgomery never had to speak to Kirkman again about the importance of artillery in the coming battle.

A detailed artillery plan was prepared that would protect the infantry moving forward and destroy known German artillery positions and strong points. Eighth Army had some 850 field and fifty medium guns in its arsenal. In addition, it had more than 1,000 anti-tank guns, of which 753 were the effective six-pounder. Ammunition supplies were abundant. “These were riches which Eighth Army had never seen before,” recalled de Guingand. Eighth Army’s artillery “was formidable indeed” and they would give it a cutting edge in the battle ahead. On the opening night of the battle, the artillery would fire the heaviest bombardment used by the British Army in the war to date. Much of the artillery was sited within 1,000 yards of the frontline so as to offer maximum protection to and beyond the final infantry objective. The artillery would fire a concentrated barrage on a particular location known as a “stonk.” They would also provide a thin creeping barrage for two of the four attacking infantry divisions on the night of the attack. Tracer shells from 40 mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns would be used to mark brigade and divisional boundaries. All of these innovations had originated with the 2nd New Zealand Division, whose CRA, Brigadier Steve Weir, was regarded by many as “the best gunner in Eighth Army.” In scientific gunnery, Eighth Army had a qualitative edge over Panzerarmee. Freyberg explained in his secret report on operations how the artillery plan worked:

“All artillery on the Corps front was under command C.C.R.A., 30th Corps. The New Zealand Division had four field regiments plus one medium battery, or 104 guns, covering a front of 2,500 yards at the first objective and opening out to 4,800 yards on the final objective, which meant a gun to every twenty-four yards on the first objective and a gun to every forty-six yards on the final objective. As this was not really sufficient for an artillery barrage, the programme provided for twenty-five per cent of the guns, or one gun per hundred yards of front, to fire on a barrage line to keep the infantry on the proper line of advance, and seventy-five per cent of the guns to fire timed concentrations on known enemy defences.”

On the eve of the offensive, many senior commanders delivered stirring speeches to the men they commanded. Montgomery was no exception, speaking to all officers in Eighth Army down to lieutenant colonel over the two days of October 19 and 20. His Chief of Staff, de Guingand, recalled that these speeches were “a real tour de force” and believed they were the best Montgomery ever delivered. Montgomery also sent a personal message to all members of Eighth Army assuring them that they were now fully ready for battle. He informed them that:

"The battle which is now about to begin will be one of the decisive battles of history. It will be the turning point of the war. The eyes of the world will be on us, watching anxiously which way the battle will swing. We can give them their answer at once: “it will swing our way.”

It was certainly inspirational.

One of the most moving and often quoted speeches was delivered by the Australian commander Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Morshead on October 10. Speaking at a meeting of officers of the 9th Australian Division down to lieutenant colonel level, Morshead impressed on all the officers present “the necessity for all ranks to fight to the last man and the last round in order to destroy the enemy.” Then Morshead told them:

“I cannot stress too greatly the value and necessity for determined leading, and it will apply in this battle as never before…. We must all apply ourselves to the task that lies ahead, work, think, train, prepare, enthuse. We must regard ourselves as having been born for this battle.”

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The Battle of North Africa , El Alamein , Turning Point of World War II - Glyn Harper

Montgomery’s plans were relatively simple. Essentially it was to “blow a hole in the enemy positions” and then dispatch a corps strong in armor through that hole. The battle was codenamed Operation Lightfoot, which displayed a staff officer’s dark humor given the density of the minefields to be crossed. Montgomery divided the battle neatly into three phases. In the north, the cream of Eighth Army’s infantry was concentrated in 30th Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Oliver Leese. The four infantry divisions of the corps were to achieve the break-in. This break-in had to be achieved on the opening night of the attack. Once the break-in had occurred, the two armored divisions of 10th Corps, under Lumsden, would pass through 30th Corps’ positions. They would move along two cleared laneways in the minefields and deploy immediately to their front. This also had to happen on the opening night. Both 30th and 10th Corps would then engage with Panzer Army during the dogfight phase. This was the attritional stage of the battle, during which Eighth Army would “slowly ‘eat the guts’ out of its enemy.” The Axis infantry would be “crumbled” away in their static positions and when Rommel’s armor sought to intervene, it would be destroyed in the pitched armored battle that followed. This phase of the battle would be a deadly “killing match” and Montgomery made it clear in a Memorandum on October 6 that this would no easy victory. Montgomery explained:

“This battle will involve hard and prolonged fighting…. Our troops must not think that, because we have a good tank and very powerful artillery support, the enemy will surrender. The enemy will not surrender and there will be bitter fighting. The infantry must be prepared to fight and kill, and to continue doing so over a prolonged period.”

But Montgomery had no doubt Rommel would be decisively defeated in this killing match; then the pursuit phase could begin. Then 10th Corps, with the New Zealanders included, the corps de chasse and a corps d’elite, would be unleashed to pursue and destroy the remnants of a defeated Panzerarmee as it sought to escape. This was the third or break-out phase of the battle.

Meanwhile, in the southern part of the line, 13th Corps, commanded by General Horrocks and consisting of the 7th Armoured Division , 44th Home Countries Division, 50th Northumberland Division and a Free French Brigade, would carry out diversionary attacks in the hope of pinning down one of Rommel’s armored divisions in this sector. Montgomery anticipated that the battle would last twelve days. As David Fraser has written, the British Army had not fought a battle like this since 1918. Such a frontal assault would become a battle of attrition “needing perfect preparation, moral force and persistence unto death.”

While the battle would be costly, it could also be decisive. While Montgomery’s plan, especially the adjustments he made to it in his October 6 Memorandum, have been described as a “bold conception” and “basically sound,” there were some serious flaws in it. First, expecting 30th Corps to achieve the break-in and 10th Corps to move through the gaps punched in the line in just one night was highly ambitious. Niall Barr has written that Montgomery’s plan simply “asked too much of the Eighth Army.” The plan also required the infantry and armored divisions to work closely together in all four phases. Yet, apart from 9th Armoured Brigade, which was embedded within the 2nd New Zealand Division, no other armored formation undertook training with the infantry. Some cursory thought had been given to how it might occur but this was totally inadequate. The lack of a common doctrine on how tanks, infantry, and artillery should deal with German anti-tank guns firing behind the protection of their minefields was a major “blank spot in tactics” and a serious omission for which Eighth Army would pay dearly. Then there was the lack of detail in the plan about what was to happen once the dogfight was won and the corps de chasse unleashed. Niall Barr writes:

“The lack of any developed plan for exploitation and pursuit was highly significant. Montgomery’s failure to plan beyond the killing match was to have important consequences at the conclusion of the forthcoming battle.”

There was one element of Montgomery’s plan that deserves special mention. For the first time in the North African campaign, the British had prepared a detailed deception plan that aimed to convince the enemy that their main effort would be made in the south. Codenamed Operation Bertram, the deception plan was elaborate and so thorough that prepared notes recorded that prior to the offensive opening on October 23, “the Eighth Army practised deception on a scale to be believed to be unequalled in military history.” This bold claim is probably justified given the extent of the deception measures undertaken. These included sending false wireless traffic; the building of a 20-mile “dummy” pipeline with three “dummy” pump houses; the creation of “dummy” supply dumps; the creation of two false transport parks with approximately 2,000 “vehicles” in each; the open movement of tanks, guns, and artillery heading south, all of which was moved back north by night; and the creation of a fake railway track made from petrol cans. Meanwhile, every effort was made to conceal the real build-up for the main attack in the north. The deception plan also included the diversionary attacks to be made by 13th Corps on October 23, as well as two “Chinese” attacks carried out by 9 Australian and 4 Indian Division. The Notes on Operation Bertram explain:

“This method was used during the last war and consists of groups of dummy figures which are elevated by mechanical means to draw fire. 75 figures were used by 9 Australian Division. They were sited in two groups some 300 yards in front of the forward defended localities. They were let up in batches from a control post about 100 yards away and “accidentally” illuminated. They drew a considerable amount of fire.”

That the main direction of the attack and its timings were not detected by Panzer Army is evidence that a tactical surprise was obtained by Eighth Army. This was greatly assisted by Desert Air Force denying the enemy aerial observation over the British positions. Between October 18 and 23, not a single German plane succeeded in flying over the British positions at Alamein. At 1830 hours on October 23, Montgomery’s staff could report “that the enemy showed no signs of expecting to be attacked that night.” The Panzer Army’s evening report to Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH—the High Command of the German Army) informed them that: “Enemy situation unchanged.” Eighth Army’s senior Intelligence Officer believed that “this was due in great measure to the effectiveness of the deception methods adopted.” A report from 9th Australian Division confirmed the effectiveness of the deception plan. Interrogation of prisoners of war captured in the opening attack revealed that “Axis Comd believed up till evening of 24 October (24 hours after the launching of the attack) that the real threat lay in the south.” The British official history of deception operations is adamant that “there can be no doubt of the success” of British deception measures prior to Alamein and that a “tactical surprise was complete.” Alexander confirmed this in his post-war Despatch. He described the deception operations as being “entirely successful; the main direction of our thrust and the location of our armour were unknown to the enemy at the time the attack began and for some time afterwards.” Alexander reported that it was not until the third day of the battle “that he finally concentrated all his resources against our real attack.”

There was another successful deception plan that has received almost no attention in histories of the battle. From 1942, Eighth Army’s military intelligence section had created several bogus military formations aimed to convince the enemy that Eighth Army was much larger than it really was. In 1942, an additional armored division (15th) and seven bogus infantry divisions had been created. Two of the infantry divisions were from India and one from New Zealand. In addition, a fictitious 25th Corps headquarters had been created. Each bogus formation was supported by fake wireless traffic, forged documentation, empty military camps, and other deception measures. The ruse was stunningly successful. Enemy documents captured after the battle showed that the bogus units were accepted as real. It resulted in Panzer Army overestimating the strength of its opponent by 40 percent in armor and 45 percent in infantry. The inflated figures “were to remain in German intelligence estimates until the end of the war.” (and later seeped into German version of official history that reflected a romantic tale of woe about impossible struggle against material and numerical superiorty of Montgomery)

So, what did the Axis leadership know of the pending attack and how did they prepare to meet it? Rommel was under no illusion about what to expect after Alam Halfa. The initiative had passed to Eighth Army. A senior German staff officer, General major Alfred Toppe, wrote after the war, “It was clear to Rommel that time was working against him and that as soon as the enemy had brought forward sufficient reinforcements he would launch a powerful counteroffensive.” In the battle ahead, the British had several advantages. Rommel wrote prior to El Alamein:

“the British would first have to try for a break through. We had no doubts about the suitability of the British Army for such a task, for its entire training had been based on the lessons learnt in the battles of material of the First World War…. In this form of action the full value of the excellent Australian and New Zealand infantry would be realised and the British artillery would have its effect.”

But as Rommel noted, at El Alamein those defending a position had “a certain advantage.” Those attacking had no choice but to assault prepared defensive positions. Those defending these positions “could dig in and protect itself with mines, while the enemy had to make his attack exposed to the fire of the dug-in defence.”

To counter the blow that was coming, Rommel’s defenses were prepared in considerable depth. The forward outpost line, the point nearest the enemy, was thinly held but ran to a depth of around 900 meters (1,000 yards). It consisted of mutually supporting strongpoints and its purpose served as an early warning system. The outpost strongpoints “were provided with dogs to give warning of any British approach to the minefields.” Behind the outpost line was a gap of up to two kilometers (about one and a quarter miles) before the main defensive position was reached. Each battalion in line occupied a frontage of around 1,500 meters (one mile) and ran to a depth of five kilometers (just over three miles). Only one company in each battalion was deployed to the forward outpost line, the rest occupied the main line of defense. German and Italian battalions were interspersed “so that an Italian battalion always had a German as its neighbour.” The panzer divisions were positioned immediately behind the main line so that their guns could cover the front line. They were also ready to move to any threatened sector of the front.

The key to Rommel’s defense, though, was his “Devil’s Gardens.” Major General Alfred Toppe explained Rommel’s method:

“He therefore did everything possible to improve the German positions, with particular stress on the use of mines, including air bombs which were buried and prepared for electrical detonation. He even had what he called “mine gardens” lain in the outpost area and had all battalion command posts surrounded by minefields. In distributing the forces in the northern half of the defense line, which he considered the most endangered and which was in the zone of the Italian 21st Corps, he placed Italian battalions and battalions of the 164th Light African Division alternately.”

From July 5 to October 20, German and Italian engineers planted almost 500,000 mines in this garden, making for a most formidable defense. Most of the mines—more than 360,000 of them—were of British origin (captured in Gazala , Tobruk and Mersa Matruh thanks to previous British commanders negligence), but these would now be used against their former owners. Only 14,509 of the mines were anti-personnel S-mines. S stood for Springen. When activated, an initial charge sprang the canister to waist height, where it exploded, sending 360 ball-bearings in all directions. Rommel would have preferred to have had many more of these S-mines. Instead of three percent of the mines being of the anti-personnel type, Rommel had directed that this figure should reach one-third of all mines laid. Despite this good fortune, breaching the German defensive positions at El Alamein was going to be a challenging task. Rommel’s problems at Alam Halfa had been caused by some of these very mines in his Devil’s Garden and he now had many more of them. There were “at least two belts of mines all along the Axis positions” as well as isolated minefield “boxes” that were designed to channel the attackers into designated killing zones. During the Second World War, no other army to date had used so many mines in its defenses. Rommel placed considerable confidence in his defenses, especially in the effectiveness of the minefields. Niall Barr writes:

“Such deep defences combined with the minefields confronted Eighth Army with a severe challenge. Rommel placed great faith in his “Devil’s Gardens” and he believed that any future British offensive would come to grief amongst the dense tangle of wires, outposts and mines.”

While the Axis forces knew an assault was coming, knowing when and where it would fall was a different matter. Eighth Army had spent considerable effort on its deception plan but this was only partially successful. On October 21, Colonel Ulrich Liss of the Intelligence section of OKH visited Panzer Army Afrika. At the conference that followed, Liss “expressed the opinion that the decisive British attack would not start before the beginning of November.” But Panzer Army’s own intelligence section, detecting the build-up of medical personnel close to the front line, concluded instead “that an all-out attack by Eighth Army was imminent.” The records of the Afrika Korps confirm this. As early as October 1, 1942, 15th Panzer Division’s Intelligence Officer had warned that the reinforced Eighth Army “will launch an offensive in mid Oct with the object of forcing a break through our fortified positions and destroying the Axis forces.” Further, because the attack could be supported by the Royal Navy and offered the prospect of splitting the Axis forces: “The main weight of the offensive will come between the coast and Ruweisat.” It could not be argued then, as the British Official History of deception operations claimed, that Eighth Army obtained a “complete … tactical surprise” over Panzer Army.

Rommel was still not well. His commander Albert Kesselring later wrote that after Alam Halfa, Rommel was a changed man. According to Kesselring, Rommel was:

“no longer the bold leader of old; the long period, almost two years, of uninterrupted fighting in the hot climate, with the incessant friction from the co-operation with the Italians, and of the disappointment at the failure of the advance to Cairo, had seriously upset his health and above all his nerves. Rommel needed a rest.”

His doctor insisted during this lull period that he return to Germany for a period of rest and recovery. Having made all of the defensive arrangements he could, Rommel handed over command of Panzer Army Afrika to General Georg Stumme on September 22 and left for Germany. General Stumme is often treated as a non-entity in many accounts of the October battle, especially as he died so early during it. But Stumme had a distinguished career as a panzer commander having commanded divisions and corps in Poland, France, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Russia. For his campaigning in France, Stumme, like Rommel, had been awarded the Knights Cross, which was the highest degree of the Iron Cross. Rommel would not have handed over his command to Stumme if he did not think he was up to the job.

Nor would Rommel have left for Germany if he was not confident of being able to hold off Eighth Army’s next attack. In his papers, Rommel wrote of the October Alamein offensive as a “Battle Without Hope.” He ended the account of his defensive preparations with one despairing sentence:

“But all our efforts were to prove unavailing against the immensely superior British force—not because of mistakes we had made, but because victory was simply impossible under the terms on which we’d entered the battle.”

Niall Barr is correct to claim that Rommel “overlaid a heavy dose of hindsight” when he spoke of having no chance in the battle ahead. If he had been that hopeless neither Rommel nor his subordinates would not make such intense defensive preperations and sown minefields and positioned themselves deep in Egypt. As Barr states, senior Axis commanders, including Rommel, “were far from despondent about the coming British offensive.” It is even probable that they were still deluding themselves that Panzer Army would capture Nile Vaalley , Suez and end the campaign victoriously. In Berlin on September 31, Rommel received “a hero’s welcome” at the Sportplats, where he waved his recently acquired field marshal’s baton presented to him by Hitler. At the Reichchancellery, he had “basked in the Fuhrer’s adulatory speech extolling his great desert victories.” The mood in Berlin was far from despondent. Generalmajor Eckhardt Christian, a senior staff officer at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW—the High Command of the German Armed Forces), recalled a briefing by Rommel at the Führer’s Headquarters when Rommel reached Berlin. Rommel “registered uneasiness” about Britain’s growing air superiority in the region, “which he termed as the most serious stumbling blocks.” He also expressed concern about “the sporadic, usually insufficient, supply shipments.” But the main impression Rommel created was one of confidence. Christian remembered:

“He described in detail the strength of the newly occupied position and the plans for improvements. Particularly confident were his remarks concerning the position’s defenses which, according to him, had been rendered all the more impregnable by the installation of very dense mine fields. The Field Marshal produced scaled sketches of these so-called “mine orchards” (“Minengarten”) which he himself had planned. Continuing his report, Rommel stated that, generally speaking, he was satisfied with the bearing of his troops and of part of the Italian units.”

Rommel’s report of the situation in North Africa “generally met approval” and OKW undertook to address the problems he raised. The general impression gained was that although the Axis thrust intoCairo had to be postponed, “the situation prevailing at the southern front … presented no cause for undue apprehension.” At a press conference at the Propaganda Ministry on October 3, Rommel radiated confidence, telling his audience that “they held the door to Egypt in their hands.” This was hardly indicative of a battle without hope.

Table 5.1. Comparative Strengths October 23, 1942

Eighth Army : Frontline Troops : 198,476 , Tanks : 1,020 (170 Grants, 252 Shermans, 216 Crusader II, 78 Crusader III, 119 Stuarts, 194 Valentines) , Armored cars : 400 , Artillery : 892 , Anti-tank guns1,350 (800 six-pounders, 550 two-pounders) , Desert Air Force : 1.200 fighter , fighter bomber and light medium bomber aircraft with %80 readiness

Panzer Army Afrika : Frontline troops : 108,000 (53,736 Germans , rest Italians) , Tanks : 600 (including 255 German panzers), Armored Cars 200 , Artillery : 552 (including 26 heavy guns) , Antitank guns 1,063 (86 were the notorious 88 mm dual-purpose gun and 93 of them Italian heavy 90 mm anti tank guns as good as 88 mm guns) Mines : 500,000 , Axis Aircraft : 530 (300 Lufftwaffe aircraft rest Italian) with %65 readiness , Figures vary in different accounts of the battle. I have used figures from Walker, 249–250 and Barr)

Eighth Army was not “immensely superior” in force, as Rommel alleged, either. Senior staff officer Generalmajor Alfred Toppe later admitted that during this period “the strengths of both sides were about equal. Neither the Eighth British Army nor the German forces had any appreciable measure of superiority.” The comparative strengths on the eve of battle can be seen in table above.

From the figures in table, in terms of men, armor, and artillery, Eighth Army appeared to have a crushing superiority. It may therefore seem surprising that Panzer Army managed to stave off defeat for as long as it did. This is especially true when Panzer Army’s fuel shortage was considered. In September, only 20 percent of Panzer Army’s supplies had been lost en route to North Africa. In October, though, this figure had reached “no less than 44 per cent.” Rommel’s supply lines were being steadily strangled by Allied planes and submarines, which were well-informed about when shipments were being made to him. On the eve of the offensive, Panzerarmee had three consumption units on hand, which gave it enough fuel for just over four days’ battle supply. During the battle, Mussolini admitted to the senior Italian commander that the problem of fuel for Panzerarmee “gnawed at his liver, day and night.”But fuel shortages aside, Eighth Army’s numerical superiority was not as great as the numbers would suggest. In most areas, Eighth Army had a two-to-one advantage over Panzerarmee. When attacking, a three-to-one advantage is the general rule of thumb used. Walker, the New Zealand official historian, wrote of Eighth Army’s two-to-one superiority: “The course of military history shows that such a ratio is not sufficient on its own to ensure victory to the attackers.” Eighth Army had often enjoyed this numerical advantage before and had still not been able to defeat Rommel.

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The Battle of North Africa , El Alamein , Turning Point of World War II - Glyn Harper

In summary : Eighth Army’s strength in infantry and armor was deceptive. The infantry divisions of 30 Corps had the task of making the breach in the Axis line. There were five divisions but one, the 4th Indian Division, was not ready to take part in a major assault. It had only two brigades and the Corps Commander assessed it as “only capable of holding the line and could only be relied on provided they were very well mined and wired in.” It had been planned that 4th Indian Division would carry out a series of raids around Ruweisat Ridge, but these had to be abandoned. Two of the five divisions were below strength and had no replacements available. These were the 1st South African Division and the 2nd New Zealand Division. The New Zealanders would receive no reinforcements in 1942, which meant that their two infantry brigades were well below strength. On the eve of the offensive, Freyberg recorded in his diary:

“men in good form—our trouble is we are short of men now—weapons all right—guns and tanks must do what infantry have done before—it all depends on the gun line and the tanks must go through.”

Leese, the Corps Commander, described 2nd New Zealand Division as “a grand Division … magnificently commanded by General Freyberg, whose leadership in battle was an inspiration to the whole of the Corps.” But Leese recognized that with two understrength brigades and no reinforcement, 2nd New Zealand Division was “incapable of fighting a sustained action.” This left only two fully equipped divisions in the Corps who were capable of fighting this type of action. These were the 51st Highland Division and the 9th Australian Division. The 51st Highland Division had been rebuilt after the entire division was captured at St. Valery in 1940. This reconstituted Division had not been in action before. This meant the 9th Australian Division was the only experienced infantry division in 30th Corps capable of slugging it out in a sustained action. Leese was effusive in his praise of this formation. The 9th Australian Division was: “a fine Division, very ably commanded by General Morshead, highly specialised in this type of warfare; intensely confident in itself and full of offensive spirit.” Little wonder that, in the battle ahead, the 9th Australian Division played a key role.

Leese’s 30th Corps was short of artillery, too. He had 452 field guns and forty-eight medium guns to cover the entire 30th Corps break-in attack. Facing 30th Corps were two well-entrenched enemy divisions. These were the German 164th Light Division and the Italian Trento Division. Between them, these two divisions fielded 250 anti-tank and ninety field guns. But the two divisions were also supported by an additional thirteen heavy, seventy medium, and 160 field guns. Deployed behind the 164th and Trento Divisions were three mixed battle groups from 15th Panzer Division and the Littorio Armored Division, who had their own artillery support embedded. 30th Corps must be regarded as weak in artillery. It did not have a two-to-one superiority in field artillery and was actually outnumbered in terms of heavy and medium guns.

In the southern sector, the British 13th Corps consisted of 7th Armoured Division, the famed “Desert Rats,” 44th Home Countries Division, and a Free French Brigade. It faced the Folgore Parachute and Pavia Divisions and the Ramcke Parachute Brigade. Axis armor consisted of 21th Panzer Division and Ariete Armored Division (best Italian divisions of the war , even better performers than Germans in night operations). Ariete was regarded as “the best of the Italian armoured formations.”

Eighth Army’s superiority in tanks was also deceptive. Only 422 were the US-made Grant and Sherman tanks in total, which could match the majority of German tanks in terms of armor, mechanical reliability, and firepower. Even then, the M3 Grant had its main 75 mm gun in a sponson attached to the tank’s main body at the front right of the hull. Rather than a revolving turret with all-round traverse like the Sherman, the Grant’s main weapon had severe limitations. Recently arrived, too, was the Crusader III tank, which at last mounted a decent gun: the six-pounder as opposed to the two-pounder gun of other British tanks. This new arrival “had been keenly awaited for a long time” and was expected to be “a big improvement” over previous British tanks. Such high hopes were soon dashed. The British official history admitted that “before long the Mark III was being criticized for displaying most of the weaknesses of the early Crusaders, and like them, for having no capped ammunition.” The lack of capped, armor-piercing ammunition for the Crusader Mark III was a shocking oversight.

                               * * *

Even with a numerical advantage over Panzer Army, Eighth Army’s superiority in tanks would “count for very little unless the armoured brigades could reach the open desert and deploy properly.” Few experienced soldiers in Eighth Army expected this to happen. As Leese recalled, the Dominion troops, that is three of the four attack divisions in his 30th Corps, had “no faith whatsoever in the British armour.”

On the eve of the final battle of El Alamein, Montgomery sent a personal message to all members of Eighth Army. He informed them that “We are ready NOW” to destroy Rommel and his army. He assured his soldiers that they had plenty of first-class equipment and that if they all fought hard, “there can be only one result—together we will hit the enemy for ‘six’ right out of North Africa.” The Commonwealth members of Eighth Army appreciated the cricketing analogy and hoped Montgomery was right. No doubt many joined with Montgomery in praying, with echoes of Oliver Cromwell, that “the ‘Lord mighty in Battle’ will give us victory.”

In London that Friday evening after dinner, General Alan Brooke received a call from the War Office informing him that the attack had commenced. His diary entry reflected all the hopes, anxiety, and desperation the United Kingdom had invested in this battle:

“We are bound to have some desperately anxious moments as to what success is to be achieved. There are great possibilities and great dangers! It may be the turning point of the war, leading to further success combined with the North African attack, or it may mean nothing. If it fails I don’t quite know how I shall bear it, I have pinned such hopes on these two offensives.”

Churchill, too, had much at stake. On the eve of the offensive he wrote to Alexander that “all our hopes are centred upon the battle you and Montgomery are going to fight. It may well be the key to the future.” Churchill requested, as with Alam Halfa, that Alexander send him the word “Zip” when the battle started.

Much closer to the battlefield, writing to his wife from his battle headquarters, a hole in the ground some 2,000 yards from the start line, Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead , commander of 9th Australian Division caught the mood and hopes of the men of Eighth Army. Morshead wrote less than two hours before the battle began:

“A hard fight is expected, and it will no doubt last a long time. We have no delusions about that. But we shall win out and I trust put an end to this running forward and backward to and from Bengazi. It is the effort to finish the war in North Africa, and if successful as we feel it will be, it should have a very material influence on the war…. We have been working very hard on the plans and preparation for some weeks. And now the stage is set.”

The stage indeed was set for the largest battle yet fought in North Africa. Whether it would be the turning-point battle everyone hoped it would depended on how well the Eighth Army fought and how well Montgomery commanded them. On the eve of battle, these were very much unknown qualities.



Deployments of Eighth Army and Panzer Army Afrika

Pendelum of War , Three Battles of Alamein , Nial Barr

Sweat saves blood

Prussian military maxim

Montgomery began planning what became known as Operation Lightfoot within days of his arrival at Eighth Army Headquarters. Right from the start, he made much more effective use of his team of staff officers than Auchinleck had. Brigadier Charles Richardson, who had been deeply unhappy, found the new regime gave him ‘clear and definite’ tasks. This was in large part due to the efficient functioning of Montgomery’s ‘chief of staff’ system. Montgomery delegated the entire running of Eighth Army’s Main Headquarters to Freddie de Guingand.

Every morning at 07.00 hours, de Guingand met with the headquarters staff in the operations caravan to discuss the matters for attention that day. The meetings ‘though very informal, were highly expeditious’. Briefs of the present operational ‘sitrep’ and intelligence summaries were given, followed by de Guingand’s list of points for action. Any further points would be raised and dealt with and the meeting would then break up – generally after only twenty minutes. Thanks to these meetings, the entire staff knew exactly what they were responsible for and could work to achieve it immediately. Freddie de Guingand’s days were busy. He liaised closely with the Army Rear Headquarters on all issues of supply, stayed in touch with the staff of each corps and contacted General Headquarters Middle East in Cairo on a daily basis amongst a multitude of other tasks. Every evening, he reported to Montgomery on developments, the actions executed that day and future issues. Soon after his arrival, Montgomery had hinted that he might replace de Guingand but clearly thought better of it. Although Montgomery and de Guingand had very different personalities and tastes – perhaps because of this – they made a highly efficient team.

Richardson’s first job as planner under de Guingand was to write an appreciation and plan for Operation Lightfoot. Previous unofficial Chief of Staff of Eighth Army and Auchinleck , Brig. ‘Chink’ Dorman-Smith had appropriated this task to himself while at Eighth Army (and creating a veery chaotic and inefficient staff work) HQ so it was not surprising that Richardson’s morale improved considerably under de Guingand’s direction. He was ‘amazed to learn from Freddie that Monty already had very firm ideas where, when and how he would fight the battle; these ideas were passed on to me’.

Richardson’s appreciation was ready by 19 August, only six days after Montgomery had taken command. Richardson identified the northern sector as ‘the most suitable for a breakthrough’, i) The right flank rests securely on the sea.ii) The MITEIRIYA Ridge is a strong tactical feature giving security to the left flank.iii) A threat here forces the enemy away from his L. of C. and threatens him with encirclement.iv) A ‘breakthrough’ in this area produces an immediate threat to the enemy’s landing grounds.v) A landing from the sea may be possible to support the Maintenance is easier.

The projected axis of the attack was to be on either side of the coast road. This, too, accorded with Auchinleck’s thinking. The attack, envisaged as taking place on 1 October, was timed to take advantage of the September full moon to help the sappers in their mine-lifting tasks. Four brigades, two each from the 9th Australian and 51st (Highland) Divisions, would mount the assault with a further two brigades tasked with ‘holding the gap’. The plan was to breach the Axis defences rapidly and ‘with the greatest measure of surprise’. This would enable 10th Corps, formed from 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions with the 2nd New Zealand Division, to penetrate the gap and drive deep into the Panzerarmee’s rear. The penetration had to be deep to ensure that ‘the enemy must attack us to restore the situation and cannot merely adjust his forward dispositions to conform’. 10th Corps would take up positions around Ghazal station and attack any Axis armoured formations moving north in the flank. Meanwhile, 4th Light Armoured Brigade would be sent on to raid El Daba and possibly Fuka. Two hours later, a small regimental group of tanks and supporting arms would land at Ras Abu el Guruf to attack the Panzer Army in its rear. Although it is possible to detect at least a glimpse of Auchinleck’s planning in Richardson’s appreciation, this document marked the beginning of an intensive period of planning, debate and discussion that transformed Operation Lightfoot into a much larger operation.

Eighth Army and Montgomery were fortunate that Rommel did attack at the end of August. Richardson’s appreciation was a very bold and daring plan which was predicated on the relatively limited, and possibly inadequate, resources which would be available to Eighth Army by the end of September. While the plan integrated all three services, an initial breakthrough attack mounted by just two divisions was too small to succeed against the increasingly elaborate defences of the Panzer Army. The timing for the offensive was also too tight and Freyberg noted in his diary on 9 September that the ‘Target date for next show is impossible. Training will go on into October.’ The Joint Planning Staff in Cairo prepared a detailed breakdown of the readiness states for all the units in Eighth Army. This showed that 10th Armoured Division would not be ready until 8 October while 1st Armoured, along with many other units, could not be ready until 15 October. It was not possible to undertake all the detailed planning, preparations and training necessary for the attack by 1 October. Recognising this, Montgomery was determined not to attack until the period of the next full moon – sometime around 24 October. Rommel’s offensive at the end of August derailed Eighth Army’s timetable but it gave Montgomery something very precious. He now had a good reason to delay the attack, and a strong argument for doing so. It would have been very difficult to resist Churchill’s insistent demands for an ‘immediate offensive’ without the reassuring defensive victory at Alam Halfa.

On 11 September, Churchill wrote to Alexander concerning plans for the coming offensive:

“I assume that LIGHTFOOT is what you and Montgomery explained to me in the caravan by the sea. It would be a help to me to know about when you think it will come off. I know you will be thinking about general problems as well as your own. I had hoped to have heard from you before.”

Since Churchill had appointed Alexander on the basis that he would mount an ‘immediate offensive’, the Prime Minister had been remarkably patient in waiting until Alam Halfa was well and truly over before raising this issue with Alexander. Nonetheless, he wanted results from his new team as soon as possible. Alexander had been astute in simply not raising the issue.

It was not until 19 September that Alexander replied and finally broke the unwelcome news to the Prime Minister: the projected date for Lightfoot was now 24 October. He explained that 10th Corps would not receive all its equipment until 1 October and, given the fact that ‘the battle must be so stage managed that a hole is blown in the enemy front and 10th Corps passed through this hole in daylight’, the full moon at the end of October would be needed for the operation. Alexander insisted that the minimum period of training for 10th Corps once it received all its equipment was one month but ‘in view of the moon period I am forced to make it only 3 weeks. It is therefore clear that 24th October is the earliest date possible.’ Alexander stood in a long line of British generals who had tried to explain to the Prime Minister why they had to delay their plans for attack but, unlike his predecessors, he won the political fight.

Churchill replied that he was ‘greatly distressed to receive such bad news for which I was not prepared having regard to your strength compared with the enemy’. Churchill desperately needed a British victory before the Torch landings took place in North Africa not only to show the value of Britain to the alliance but also to influence the French and Spanish attitude towards those landings. Churchill insisted that ‘the time you mention does not give sufficient time for impression to soak in’. Alexander’s reply rebuffed Churchill on every point. He was adamant that ‘to attack before we are ready will be to court failure’ and explained in greater detail the training needs and timings which made the delay essential. Montgomery had assisted Alexander in writing out the main four points on which to base a reply but Alexander’s reputation and standing with the Prime Minister were vital in achieving the result that both men wanted. The fact was that, for once, Churchill’s new Commander-in-Chief Middle East had all the political capital he needed to stave off the Prime Minister’s demands. The command changes of August, combined with the defensive victory of Alam Halfa, made it impossible for Churchill to threaten further changes to ‘encourage’ his generals. He was forced to accept the delay and replied, ‘We are in your hands and of course a victorious battle makes amends for much delay.’ Brooke insisted that Churchill finished the telegram with, ‘Whatever happens we shall back you up and see you through.’ Alexander had won the political battle with consummate skill and Eighth Army was able to reap the benefits in full.

At the same time as he prepared his initial outline plan for Lightfoot, Montgomery began to purge the commanders of the Eighth Army and replace them with members of his own team – men he knew he could trust to fulfil his intentions. General Ramsden commander of 30th Corps , who had done so much to prepare the groundwork for Lightfoot, was summoned to Eighth Army Headquarters while on leave in Alexandria. Montgomery curtly informed him that he was to be replaced by Sir Oliver Leese, who had been one of Montgomery’s students at Staff College. Ramsden was understandably aggrieved, but Montgomery’s only explanation was, *‘You’re not exactly on the crest of a wave, Ramsden.’*Just as Freyberg had resented Horrocks’ appointment to 13th Corps, so Morshead was aggrieved at being passed over yet again for the command of 30th Corps. Leese’s appointment started a fresh flurry of telegrams over the issue. In fact, Churchill accepted that Morshead had justifiable claims and only agreed to Leese’s appointment because Alexander had asked for him specifically. Had Churchill realised that Leese was Montgomery’s nomination it may well have been refused. Callum Renton, the commander of 7th Armoured Division who had quarrelled with Horrocks during Alam Halfa, was sacked. Michael Carver later noted sadly that Renton was not a good divisional commander but had the misfortune to be sacked over an argument with his superior when ‘he was in the right’. Nonetheless, Carver believed that John Harding, Renton’s replacement, was a superb choice as ‘he infused the whole division with his own energy, enthusiasm and commonsense’.

Noel Martin, the Brigadier Royal Artillery of Eighth Army, who had done sterling work during the July battles in concentrating the fire of the guns and attempting to reverse the previous policies of dispersion, was blamed by Montgomery for these very practices and was replaced by Brigadier Sidney Kirkman. He had already served as Montgomery’s artillery commander in England and thus was a natural choice to take charge of Eighth Army’s artillery.

Montgomery’s purges also swept through the brigadiers and colonels of Eighth Army. Of course, Monty could only sack British officers; officers of the three Dominion divisions and the 4th Indian Division were all immune from his broom. Montgomery undertook this stream of command changes as a means of bending what he saw as a recalcitrant army to his will. These purges undoubtedly created ill feeling within the officer corps of Eighth Army. Still, there is no question that Montgomery chose his new commanders wisely.

On 13 September, Montgomery set down his ideas for a radically expanded offensive. His memorandum covered not only the overall plan but the importance of training and morale in the coming fight. Montgomery broke from the mould of the Staff College appreciation and produced a document that was a model of clarity. During July, Eighth Army had been bombarded with multiple plans and cancellations. Montgomery’s ‘Memorandum No. 1’ clearly laid out the overall plan and purpose yet it was only the starting point, designed as it was to ‘form the basis of all our plans and preparations for operation “LIGHTFOOT”’.

The plan, although incorporating some of Richardson’s ideas, was very different from the ‘appreciation and plan’ of 19 August. Instead of a two-division assault, 30th Corps would now launch four divisions, supported by 23rd Armoured Brigade, in an attack designed to capture all the ‘enemy main defended positions’ between the coast and the Miteiriya ridge. The frontage of the attack was far wider but also much deeper as it was to seize the Panzerarmee’s ‘main gun areas’. Meanwhile, in the south 13th Corps was to seize Himeimat and thus ‘draw enemy armour away from the main battle in the North’. 4th Light Armoured Brigade was to be squeezed around the southern flank to raid El Daba and destroy the enemy landing grounds there. A direct survival from Richardson’s appreciation was the idea of a small combined force being landed on the coast at Ras Abu el Guruf. In common with Auchinleck and Richardson’s appreciations was the emphasis on deception operations to ‘deceive the enemy as to our intentions to attack at all and, if this fails, as to the direction of our main attack’. The assault was to be mounted during the hours of darkness and the bridgehead secured and ‘thoroughly cleared of all enemy troops and guns’ before the armoured brigades of 10th Corps moved up to pass through the gap. The armour was to be in position ‘ready to fight at first light’ so that they could ‘complete the victory’.

This seemingly simple plan was very ambitious. The infantry divisions of 30th Corps, supported by a ‘great weight of artillery fire’, would have to make a night advance of at least four and in some cases nearly six miles to reach the rear of the Axis defences and gun lines. The final objective for the four divisions was known as the ‘Oxalic’ line. 9th Australian Division would attack nearest the coast, with 51st (Highland) Division next in the line. Further south, 2nd New Zealand Division would capture and hold the Miteiriya ridge west of the Qattara track while 1st South African Division brought up its right flank to meet up with them on the ridge. One gap in the Axis defences and minefields would be made for 10 Corps within 51st (Highland) Division’s front with the other in the 2nd New Zealand Division’s area. Following Kisch’s advice, 10th Corps would be responsible for marking, policing and clearing its own gaps in the complex series of minefields and all this would have to be achieved in just one night. Meanwhile, the infantry would have to ensure that deployment areas and routes to be used by 10th Corps were ‘thoroughly cleared of all enemy troops and guns’ before the armoured brigades began to move through them.

The armour of 10th Corps was then meant to pass ‘unopposed through gaps in the enemy minefields and be launched into territory West of these main minefields’. Having reached the objective line known as ‘Pierson’, the corps would then pivot on the Miteiriya ridge and take up ‘ground of its own choosing astride the enemy’s supply routes’. At this point, Montgomery’s plan gave out as ‘further operations will depend on how the enemy re-acts to this initial thrust’. The main idea was to force the panzer divisions to counterattack the British armour. This would enable Eighth Army to wear down the panzers to the point of destruction. Once this had been achieved, the rest of the Panzerarmee could then ‘be rounded up without any difficulty’. This concept was the reverse of Auchinleck’s policy of wearing down Italian formations so that the Panzer Army had no infantry left to hold the front.

The lack of any clear plan for the exploitation phase was striking. German operational art was founded upon a common understanding of the exploitation of a breakthrough. Panzer divisions were designed to break through enemy defences on a narrow front and then encircle the enemy. Soviet operational art was even more sophisticated. Soviet ‘deep battle’ envisaged a series of offensives along the full length of a front. Once a breakthrough had been made, second echelon forces were tasked with driving deep into the enemy’s ‘operational depth’ and destroying headquarters and rear area installations to bring about ‘operational shock’. In 1941, Soviet forces were quite unable to implement their sophisticated offensive doctrine but the doctrine of ‘deep battle’, as refined through the traumatic experiences of 1941 and 1942, provided the intellectual underpinnings for Soviet offensives from late 1942 onwards. Montgomery had created a corps de chasse but he gave 10th Corps no clear role other than passing through the breach and then awaiting the Axis reaction. The lack of any clear, well-thought-out British doctrine on the exploitation of a breakthrough was a serious intellectual handicap. Montgomery’s unwillingness or inability to plan for the exploitation phase demonstrated the limits of his military thinking.


Pendelum of War , Three Battles of Alamein , Nial Barr

Yet the initial assault to be mounted in Lightfoot was far more ambitious than Bacon and Splendour had been. Four infantry divisions, aligned along a corps frontage of 12,000 yards, had to assault the Axis defences and seize a ‘bridgehead’ at least 6,000 yards deep. The frontage at the final corps objective actually widened to 16,000 yards. As the 2nd New Zealand Division had shown on the night of 14 July it was just possible to mount a night advance of six miles through defended territory. However, an advance of that distance made it very difficult to ensure that all enemy posts had been mopped up. Axis defences were also far stronger by mid-September than they had been in mid-July. There was no precedent for attempting a break-in assault of this size, clearing gaps in a series of minefields and passing four armoured brigades through all in one night.

On 15 September, Montgomery held a conference with his three corps commanders and all the divisional commanders to explain his plan for the coming offensive. However, when the commanders returned to their units and began tackling the challenge of implementing the plan, most realised that it was far too ambitious. Leese, the newly appointed commander of 30th Corps, spent three days in observing the ground for the attack. He took his old friend Douglas Wimberley along with him on his reconnaissances who thought that ‘all the ground looked horribly open and bare’. The two dominating features were the coastal ridge and the Miteiriya ridge with open desert between. However, Leese believed that even with a total of 432 field guns and 48 medium guns at his disposal :

"Four Divisions were insufficient with the number of guns available to attack on the whole frontage. I was, therefore, faced with the problem of whether to attack in the north or in the south, or whether to attack in two different places. He later admitted that ‘this frontage was very large and I have often looked back on it and felt that if I did the attack again I would somehow have shortened it more’."

On 21 September, Freyberg sent a detailed memo to Leese outlining his concerns. He noted that the:

“capture of the position may be achieved with greater ease than the holding of the final ridge. It is certain that the enemy will launch a counter attack as soon as possible after first light. Our F[orward] D[efended] L[ocalitie]s are upon a forward slope that may be solid stone and it will therefore be most difficult to get cover for the anti-tank guns, machine guns, infantry posts, OPs etc. Further the enemy is known to have a group of guns in position to shoot at the final objective and these gun positions are out of range of the majority of our bombardment guns.”

Freyberg need not have speculated about the geology of the Miteiriya ridge. The Australian infantry had had all too much experience of Ruin ridge in July and it is surprising that there does not appear to have been any liaison between the two divisions on this matter. Lieutenant-Colonel Whitehead, of the 2/32nd Australian Infantry Battalion which attacked the ridge on 16 July, had noted in his report that:

“The ability of tps to dig in quickly and obtain adequate cover may decide whether the posn can be held or not. Consideration should be given to objectives where suitable cover can be obtained. . . . Posns must not be occupied where adequate Atk defence cannot be given. Fwd slopes of escarpments are difficult in this regard.”

However, Whitehead’s excellent report was filed with 9th Australian Division Headquarters and not disseminated throughout the army. It was unfortunate that the same kind of information failure experienced by the New Zealanders on 14 July was still possible. Freyberg also noted, ‘The area to be attacked and the depth to which the attack is planned to penetrate makes the operation one of great difficulty. It will require two full infantry brigades.’ Given the distance to be covered, and the amount of mopping up that would be required, Freyberg recognised that battalions would not be able to go ‘straight through to the final objective’. He argued that battalions would have to ‘leapfrog’ through to the final objective and that there would have to be a pause in the artillery programme to enable the mopping up of the first objective area and the move up to a fresh start line for the second objective. Freyberg suggested:

“The operation will accordingly divide naturally into two separate attacks. There will be the attack on the first objective when the barrage lifts, then a pause followed by concentrations of fire to cover the advance of the second wave to the final objective. I see no difficulty in either of these attacks provided we allow sufficient time and co-ordinate our start lines, bombardments and pauses with the SA Division and 51 Division.”

Freyberg had already recognised that ‘this operation approximates to the battles fought in 1918’ and the familiarity of the three key divisional commanders, Morshead, Wimberley and Freyberg, with those attacks of twenty years before was critical to the success of Lightfoot.

Thus there was a great distance between Montgomery’s bold and clear overall plan and its execution. The ongoing discussions concerning the plan also highlight the sharp difference in the planning process between July and September 1942. In July, divisional commanders had been confronted with difficult tasks yet the hurried conferences before each attack had given them no time to think through the consequences or find solutions to the problems.

Although Montgomery had stated that orders were no longer to be considered a basis for discussion, this was exactly what occurred during the planning process for Lightfoot. Freyberg wrote a concerned memo to Leese on 21 September while his division prepared to carry out a full-scale rehearsal of the attack. Freyberg explained:

“We are carrying out an Exercise framed to embody as many of the conditions we are likely to meet as possible . . . The 9 Armd Brigade will co-operate in the attack which will be carried out under live artillery trench mortar and machine gun fire. We shall lift minefields and mark them under conditions as nearly approaching battle as possible.”

The full-scale rehearsals that each infantry division underwent during September and October were crucial in the development of the plan. These ensured that each of the infantry divisions was properly trained and prepared to achieve the ambitious objectives set for them.

Ever since the Great War, the British Army had understood the value of troops rehearsing the role they would undertake during an offensive. The importance of such training was not in doubt but during the desert campaigns there had rarely been sufficient time to undertake proper preparation, as the Australian report on Lightfoot sadly acknowledged:

"So often when the Army in the Western Desert was living from hand to mouth, troops have been thrown into battle without preparation. The value of preparing, or presenting troops to the battle was shown particularly by the achievements of 51st Highland Division in this battle. "

The performance of 132nd Brigade in Operation Beresford during Alam el Halfa battle was just one example out of many of what could happen to poorly prepared troops. The experience of 51st (Highland) Division formed a complete contrast to almost every other British unit in its comprehensive preparation for battle. 51st (Highland) Division was a fresh formation which had landed in Egypt in mid-August, but the division was allowed almost two months to acclimatise and train before being sent into action. This was a luxury which no other British unit had enjoyed in nearly two years of fighting.

In many respects 51st (Highland) Division was a unique formation within the British Army. The original division, composed of the regular battalions of the Highland regiments, had been captured en masse at St Valéry in 1940. Thus the division which sailed to Egypt, formed mainly from the Territorial battalions of the same regiments, possessed a fierce desire to avenge the previous disaster. Major-General Douglas Wimberley, known as ‘Lang Tam’ because of his height, was very protective of his division and its distinctive Scottish character. He insisted on maintaining this and although the 7th Middlesex Regiment was the division’s machine-gun battalion Wimberley rationalised this as ‘“mascots” to the Jocks’. He refused to accept an English anti-aircraft regiment and saw to it that the battalions that went into action at Alamein were 80 per cent Scottish. Beyond that, the division had a high esprit de corps based on the shared traditions of the Highland regiments and the example of the previous 51st (Highland) Division in the Great War. Leese noted that ‘there was a terrific spirit in the Division and great enthusiasm to learn’.

The division began its acclimatisation at Qassassin and Mena camps. It was later noted that the:

“Highlander who had trained hard for nearly three years in England and Scotland was fast adapting himself to desert conditions. He dug one-man weapon pits in the sand and camouflaged them, judged distance in the unfamiliar light, conserved as a matter of routine his precious ration of water, learnt more about laying our mines and lifting those of the enemy, and began to move with certainty in an empty landscape by day and night.”


Highlanders in Alamein

51st Highland Division in a break at Alamein

highlanders in training 23 September

Highland troops in bayonet attack training in Egypt 23 September 1942

Highlanders 2

General Montgomery inspects 51st Highland Division (during his initial time in desert probably in September since Monty has not yet switched from Australian bush hat to Royal Tank Regiment beret)

The necessity of dispersing the troops in the desert as a precaution led to one distinctive problem for the division. The divisional headquarters piper had to mount the tailboard of a lorry and be driven round the dispersed bivouacs to pipe the morning reveille. Once the troops had become acclimatised, the division was moved up to El Hammam where the work and training became more intense. During September, each battalion of the division served in the front line with the 9th Australian Division. This enabled each unit to receive some front line experience and learn from the Australian veterans.

Wimberley was impressed with the Australians’ ability as soldiers but when he first visited them he found that the soldiers were ‘all half naked and burnt brown as berries. They took a bit of getting used to. I was dressed as a General and they treated me in the most “matey” way.’ Wimberley sent a stiff memo around his division emphasising the fact that although his division should ‘copy the Australians and do our level best to absorb all they can teach us’ for the officers and men he would not tolerate similar standards of discipline in his division. There is no doubt that the Scottish soldiers were initially:

"startled by their apparent lack of discipline. The Aussie soldiers – uniform [of] boots and shorts – referred to their officers by their first or even nicknames, an unheard of liberty to Seaforth ears. But there was little doubt about their military efficiency.

At the same time, the Australians were astonished to learn that Scottish soldiers had to salute their officers even when in action! However, when the Scottish battalions went into the line with the Australians they learned the craft of desert warfare and patrolling from masters. 51st (Highland) Division certainly never adopted the habits of the Australians but a strong bond of mutual respect grew up between the two divisions and the inexperienced Scottish units were given the best possible training.

While one Scottish battalion was serving with the Australians in its turn, the rest of the division was undergoing intensive training behind the lines. On 13 September, a training instruction outlined the programme for one month of intensive preparation. The main purpose was to study and practise the ‘procedure for breaking through prepared defences, including minefields to a depth sufficient to form a bridgehead for the passage of an Armoured Division’. All arms were to practise carrying out their tasks at night and learn to cooperate with the infantry tanks of 23rd Armoured Brigade and the RAF.47 Wimberley explained:

“We were in a fortunate position, only a small proportion of our fighting troops were in the line at one time with the 9th Australians, and we were able to take our troops for some hours out of the ‘boxes’ to give them preparatory training for the forthcoming battle . . . I laid out an exact replica of the part of the enemies defences which it was our job to attack. Then I took my troops, a Brigade at a time, and practised every Battalion in the exact job I had decided it was to do in the initial attack.”

The first divisional level exercise was held on the night of 26–27 September with the object of studying ‘the break-in to an organised prepared enemy position defended by minefields by night and reorganisation of a posn taken ready to meet c/attack’. This was a full-scale rehearsal which involved two infantry brigades with all the supporting arms of the division. The divisional artillery fired a barrage in support to accustom the soldiers to the noise and dust they would encounter in battle. These exercises were not without incident. During one divisional exercise, one gun failed to lift with the barrage and six members of 1st Black Watch were killed, including the second in command, Major Arthur Wilmot. In all, the division held a total of four divisional scale exercises to ensure that every soldier understood his part in the as yet undisclosed operation. When 51st (Highland) Division went into battle on 23 October 1942, it was immeasurably better prepared for its task than the men of 23rd Armoured Brigade had been three months before.

Every one of the assaulting divisions underwent a similar process of training and rehearsal designed to simulate as closely as possible the conditions the soldiers would encounter in battle. Battalion and brigade training exercises culminated in full divisional rehearsals involving the advance of the infantry, movement of transport, artillery support, minefield gapping and tank cooperation. 23rd Armoured Brigade also underwent intensive training alongside the soldiers of 51st Highland and 9th Australian Divisions. Each regiment in the brigade was rotated through the infantry exercises so that all the tank crews and infantry got to know one another. The essential trust between tanks and infantry that had been so lacking during July developed through hard training on these exercises.The discussions over the plan in 30 Corps, combined with the vital information gained from the exercises, meant that, unlike the plans of July, the divisional and unit commanders all played a part in shaping their tasks. General Oliver Leese , commander of 30th Corps noted:

“From the start there was a most extraordinary spirit of co-operation in the Corps. This was very remarkable, taking into consideration the very strong personalities of the Commanders concerned and the divergent types of Divisions represented. From a Corps point of view one could not have wanted a more capable or helpful team.”

Even though Leese’s appointment had been controversial, his personality and affable approach were very important in smoothing out many difficulties. He may not have had great experience of desert warfare but was willing to listen and learn from his divisional commanders and incorporate their ideas. There is no doubt that Leese handled Pienaar’s prickly personality, Morshead’s proud independence and Freyberg’s gruff caution far more expertly than either Norrie or Ramsden had.

oliver leese

General Oliver Leese , new commander of 30th Corps


9th Australian Division

However, while the commanders of 30th Corps dealt with the problems in a spirit of cooperation, the same could not be said of Lumsden’s 10 Corps. Although Lumsden was held in high regard by Briggs, his relations with Gatehouse had not improved since Alam Halfa. All three men began to have doubts about the feasibility of passing their armoured divisions through the minefield gaps in just one night. Freyberg’s recommendation for a two-phase infantry assault with a one-hour pause was eminently sensible, indeed essential, if the infantry were to carry out their part of the plan. However, this meant that the time available for passing the armour through would be short. While Montgomery had confidently asserted that the infantry would reach the enemy gun line and completely clear the sectors earmarked for 10th Corps gaps, Lumsden and his divisional commanders knew that this was virtually impossible. The experience of Bacon no doubt loomed large in their thinking. The reservations of the armour commanders also grew after they had held their series of full-scale rehearsals.

Each armoured division held a series of exercises to practise:
(a) An approach march by night by restricted routes to a minefield area
(b) The passage of a minefield or minefields by night
(c) The deployment of fighting tps beyond the minefield.

1st Armoured Division held its first exercise on 25 September, even though, before Splendour, Fisher had insisted to Brigadier Clifton that his tanks could not move at night. Now the armour of Eighth Army was practising to ensure that it could move in darkness. Yet it was also significant that, while the entire division including the tank regiments, motor battalions, lorried infantry brigade and artillery took part in the exercise, little thought was given to the need to fight alongside the infantry divisions of 30th Corps. It was stated in the division’s report that, ‘In all training, the presence of an Infantry Division clearing the bridgehead with all its attendant transport, guns, etc. must be remembered’, but at no point did the rehearsals actually include training with those divisions.

However, there was an exception to this situation within 10th Corps. After the bitter experiences of July, Freyberg refused to take part in any future attack with 2nd New Zealand Division without armour under his command. Freyberg had hoped that a New Zealand armoured brigade might be sent out in time but eventually it was agreed that the 9th Armoured Brigade should be allotted to 2nd New Zealand Division. This meant that the division would be composed of one armoured brigade and two infantry brigades along with a full complement of supporting arms. This new organisation for a ‘mobile’ division was precisely the composition that Auchinleck had envisaged in his controversial plans for reorganisation in July. It made perfect sense to begin the experiment with the 2nd New Zealand Division. There were no further replacements available for the foreseeable future and thus the division could not be expected to engage in a sustained infantry battle. By providing the division with an armoured brigade, its offensive value would be increased and, given the New Zealanders’ expertise in desert warfare, the division would be well placed to provide the infantry component of 10th Corps.

It was also significant that 9th Armoured Brigade had few ingrained prejudices about tank–infantry cooperation. Its three regiments had been brought to Palestine as Yeomanry cavalry regiments in 1939, and had been involved in the Syrian campaign in 1941 as horsed cavalry. The regiments were re-equipped with the latest Sherman tanks and had to learn the art of armoured warfare from scratch. Freyberg first met Brigadier John Currie of 9th Armoured Brigade on 12 September and noted that he ‘seems keen to come on with New Zealand Division’. Freyberg went with Currie to see a firepower demonstration which tested the new Sherman and Crusader III tanks.

By 11 September, 318 Sherman tanks and 100 ‘Priest’ 105mm self-propelled guns had arrived at Suez. These were the tanks which Roosevelt and Marshall had promised Churchill on 21 June. The Sherman M4 Medium Tank was better than any German tank in the Afrika Korps with the possible exception of the Panzer Mk IV ‘Special’. The Sherman was essentially an improved version of the Grant with its main gun in a fully rotating turret. This meant that the crews could take full advantage of the dual-purpose 75mm gun. The Sherman 75 mm could fire a high-explosive shell and, importantly, a capped armour-piercing round which could penetrate any existing German tank. The tank shared the mechanical reliability and toughness of the Grant and these characteristics made the Sherman a battle-winner.

The same could not quite be said of the Crusader Mk III, which, although it mounted the six-pounder gun, and it was quite fast and maneuverable , it was not provided with capped ammunition and could not fire an effective high-explosive shell. The small turret was cramped by the large gun breech and the reliability of the tank, just like its predecessors, was still suspect. Still Freyberg declared that he was ‘very impressed with the performance of both tanks’. However, the full allocation of ‘Swallows’ (as the British codenamed the Sherman) for 9th Armoured Brigade did not arrive until early October. This gave the brigade only a short time to prepare for their role in battle. The regiments of the brigade had been serving in Iraq and were collected together for training in mid-September, only six weeks before the battle. It was later related by the historian of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry:

"Those six weeks were very hectic. They were principally devoted to rehearsing the Brigade’s role in the coming offensive but besides this, there ‘was so much to do and so little time in which to do it’. A deal of training had to be rounded off as recent events had sadly hampered training. Then the new Sherman tanks were beginning to arrive and these held a thousand mysteries. New machinery, new types of gun, new gadgets galore. All had to be studied and mastered.

John Currie had a reputation for fearlessness in action but he also knew what could happen to untried troops in their first battle and he drove his men without mercy during this period. Six weeks was a very short time to prepare a fresh armoured brigade for battle but it was a great deal longer than had been allowed for the 23rd Armoured Brigade in July. By the time 9th Armoured Brigade went into action, John Currie had ensured that it was ready for the challenge.

1st Armoured Division’s exercise, in common with all the rehearsals conducted by the units of 10th Corps, threw up a mass of detailed points concerning lighting, organisation, width of gap necessary, march speed and communications. Since Kisch had insisted that each armoured division should be responsible for making its own gaps in the enemy minefields, the exercise underlined the need for a well-organised minefield task force to clear, hold and police the gaps. This was a welcome, if belated recognition of the fact that ‘Sappers can either work or fight, they cannot do both at once’. However, the timings of each unit in passing through the minefield gaps were far from encouraging. The Bays regimental group had taken 43 minutes longer than expected while the 2nd Rifle Brigade motor battalion had taken an extra 90 minutes. Such delays were reflected throughout the division. The exercise showed the complexity and difficulty of moving an entire armoured division through narrow minefield gaps.

Lumsden, Briggs and Gatehouse all began to doubt the feasibility of the plan. Leese remembered that he:

“had not been at all happy during the planning stage of the armour to break out. On arrival in this country I had been horrified at the controversy between infantry and armour. Neither had confidence in the other . . . At several Conferences the armour had expressed doubt as to whether they would in point of fact break through on the first morning” He ascribed this to the fact that the armoured divisions were too ‘mine and 88mm conscious’ but then he did not have personal experience of how those two weapons could easily wreck an armoured brigade in a matter of minutes. The enormous delays experienced in moving the armoured brigades through the minefield gaps during rehearsals offered concrete proof that passing them through in one night would be very difficult indeed.


Pendelum of War , Three Battles of Alamein , Nial Barr

Meanwhile, the Panzer Army Afrika was far from idle in preparing for the coming blow. There is no question that the morale of the German and Italian soldiers at Alamein had sagged under the realisation that their attempt to break through to the Delta had failed. Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry could explain away the offensive as a ‘reconnaissance in force’ but this did not fool any desert veterans. Rommel was bitterly disappointed and increasingly ill. Eventually, his doctor insisted that he return to Germany for a rest cure. On 22 September, Rommel handed over command of the Panzer Army to General der Kavallerie Georg Stumme who had served with distinction in Russia. However, before Rommel left for Germany he had already outlined the defensive plan to be adopted and started the preparations to meet the British attack.


General Georg Stumme

Rommel’s subsequent account of the fighting at Alamein, entitled ‘Battle without Hope – Alamein’, overlaid a heavy dose of hindsight onto the Axis preparations for the coming battle in September and October 1942. In fact, it is clear that even in the face of their obvious supply difficulties Axis senior commanders were far from despondent about the coming British offensive.

Confidence within the Panzer Army can only have increased after the series of failed operations mounted by General Headquarters Middle East and Eighth Army during September. Auchinleck’s plans for combined operations on the coastal flank of the Panzer Army, which he had outlined in his appreciation of 1 August, bore bitter fruit in September 1942. More detailed plans for large-scale raids on Tobruk and Benghazi were subsequently developed by the Joint Planning Staff in Cairo. These involved Special Air Service and Long Range Desert Group forces which were tasked with penetrating the Tobruk perimeter from the desert. Meanwhile, a force of destroyers and motor torpedo boats would land a party of Marines on the seaward side of the town. These forces would approach Tobruk under cover of a heavy bombing raid by the Desert Air Force. This was a boldly conceived combined operation but when Operation Agreement was executed on the night of 13 September, it quickly developed into a costly fiasco. Royal Navy anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Coventry and the destroyer HMS Zulu were both sunk by Luftwaffe bombing attacks. Three hundred Royal Marines, 280 sailors and 160 soldiers became casualties. Operation Bigamy, which was conceived as a smaller special forces raid on Benghazi, had to be abandoned in the face of alert enemy defences. These raids proved that Axis defensive measures along the vulnerable coastal flank were difficult to overcome and this undoubtedly led to the shelving of any thought of actual seaborne landings in the rear of the Panzer Army during the coming offensive.

The last and perhaps most significant failure was the Eighth Army’s dismal attempt to capture the Munassib depression on 29 September. This depression had remained in Axis hands after Alam Halfa but both sides recognised its importance as a key piece of defensive terrain. It was decided that the 131st Brigade of 44th (Home Counties) Division should make an attempt to seize the depression before the main offensive and thus threaten the Axis hold on their forward minefields in the area. Unlike the ill-fated previous attempts to seize the depression, the brigade trained intensively for the operation, codenamed Braganza, for five days and carried out a full rehearsal on the day before the attack. At 05.25 hours the barrage fired by nine regiments of field artillery crashed down in support of the advancing infantry. The 1/6th Queen’s advanced along the northern lip of the depression and met with little opposition. Similarly, the 1/7th Queen’s encountered no difficulty in taking the eastern edge of Munassib. However, its sister battalion, the 1/5th Queen’s, had the more difficult task of seizing the southern lip of the depression. When its C Company approached the minefield in front of the enemy positions, the defenders, drawn from the Folgore Parachute Division, put down heavy mortar and machine-gun fire which pinned the troops to the ground. Meanwhile, A Company penetrated the Italian positions only to find itself surrounded and overwhelmed. The reserve companies were then held up by fierce defensive fire and made little progress. After a day of heavy shelling, the 1/5th Queen’s were withdrawn from their exposed posts. The operation cost the brigade 328 casualties for little gain. Although the 21st Panzer Division was alerted by the Afrika Korps when it was clear that a ‘major operation’ was underway against the Munassib Depression its assistance was not required by the Folgore Division. The Afrika Korps paid the troops of the Folgore a rare compliment when it noted that the Italian division ‘bore the brunt of the attack. It fought well and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy.’69 Operation Braganza must have suggested to the commanders of the Panzer Army that Eighth Army had learned little from its previous disastrous attempts to seize the Munassib depression.

On 3 October, Stumme wrote to Marshal Cavallero outlining the position of the Panzer Army. He mentioned that he was carrying on with Rommel’s policy ‘in all respects’. There seemed little doubt that the British were preparing for a major offensive, Stumme said:

“The Pz Army is taking all possible steps to be able to defeat such a British offensive. We are in a position, as far as numerical strength goes, to defend ourselves against a frontal attack on the Alamein positions.”

This bullish and outrageous statement confirms that Rommel’s pessimistic views were developed with the benefit of hindsight. In fact, Stumme had every reason to be confident that his army could deal with another British attack. Every attack that the British had mounted in July had ended in clumsy failures, the raids on Benghazi and Tobruk had been fiascos and now the Folgore Parachure Division had been able to repulse an assault at Munassib. Stumme was only too aware of the Eighth Army’s growing materiel superiority but there was little to suggest to him that it would be able to capitalise upon its advantage.

The most important change to the defensive posture of the Panzer Army began on 24 September but took until 20 October to complete. It was explained that ‘the daily casualties in this static warfare compel us to loosen up our front and site it in depth’. The forward outpost line was thinned out but also extended in depth and the existing company strongpoints were augmented by additional platoon and section posts. These battle outposts were sited to a maximum depth of 1,000 yards. A commanders’ conference of 164th Division on 9 October explained that German and Italian companies alternated in front of the mine ‘boxes’ along the whole divisional sector. The company strongpoints were laid out like a chequer board to ensure that each strongpoint could support the flank of another. The purpose of this continuous line of forward occupied posts was to protect the division and to simulate the presence of a ‘strong force in occupation’. Behind the outpost line, there was then a gap of one to two kilometres before the main line defences. The battalion sectors occupied a frontage of 1,500 metres and were five kilometres deep. Only one company per battalion was deployed in the outpost zone. The number of troops deployed in the forward posts of the main line was reduced and more mines laid between the strongpoints.

The German engineers had recent experience of how difficult it could be to gap minefields under fire. To this end, Colonel Hecker, the Panzer Army’s Chief Engineer, had overseen the laying of 445,358 mines. German and Italian engineers laid 249,849 anti-tank mines and 14,509 anti-personnel mines from 5 July to 20 October while 181,000 mines in captured British minefields around Deir el Shein and Bab el Qattara were incorporated into the defences. A further 180,000 British mines from captured dumps had been relaid along the front.73 No other army had incorporated so many mines into its defences up to this point in the war. All this hard labour was to ensure that Eighth Army would be confronted by a series of mine boxes designed to hem in any attacking force and contain it so that it could be counterattacked by the Panzerarmee’s mobile reserves. Such deep defences combined with the minefields confronted Eighth Army with a severe challenge. Rommel placed great faith in his ‘Devil’s Gardens’ and he believed that any future British offensive would come to grief amongst the dense tangle of wire, outposts and mines. When he took command, Stumme was converted to this belief and later even suggested that a successful defensive action could be followed by a counteroffensive designed ‘to destroy the Eighth Army and later take Alexandria’. (that delusional thought shows how overconfident Germans still were to win the campaign or at least repel British attack)


German Devil’s Garden plans in Alamein line

On 1 October, Captain Kircher, 15th Panzer Division’s intelligence officer, wrote a prescient appreciation of the most likely methods Eighth Army would adopt in its offensive. Kircher surmised that the offensive would take place in mid-October and would be carried out in close cooperation with both the Desert Air Force and the Royal Navy. He expected continual night and day bombing combined with naval gunfire support in the Sidi Abd el Rahman area and even a landing around El Daba to seize the Panzerarmee’s supply dumps. Kircher expected that the main weight of the offensive would develop between the coast and the Ruweisat ridge. He had divined the actual axis of the coming attack, and while his estimation of the forces involved was less accurate, he was also surprisingly accurate on the likely methods:

“The initial penetration and breakthrough, and the clearing of gaps in the minefields for the armour, will be done by the infantry divisions with armoured formations under command. The sectors of our line which are not immediately attacked will be tied down by shellfire and kept busy by feint attacks. To ensure success and smash our defences the enemy will site all his artillery, including that of the armoured divisions, to support the infantry divisions’ attack.”

Kircher also recognised that Eighth Army would use deceptive measures including camouflage for the artillery so that ‘we will not realize when the positions are occupied’. His estimation that the three armoured divisions would not come forward until the day of the attack was quite correct.


At the same time as Kircher was producing his accurate assessment of British intentions, the intelligence staff of Eighth Army were also building up a clear picture of the Panzer Army’s defences. Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Spud’ Murphy, Eighth Army’s chief intelligence officer, produced a very detailed report concerning the likely ‘Enemy reaction to Operation “Lightfoot”’. Murphy noted that the Axis defensive system ‘has already achieved a state of elaboration hitherto unparalleled in NORTH AFRICA’. Two main defensive belts of mutually supporting posts and gun positions roughly three kilometres apart stretched from the coast to Deir el Shein. This defensive system was at least three to four kilometres in depth and as much as six to seven kilometres deep in some places. Murphy observed that there was frequently ‘little in the way of defences between them’ but noted:

“Connecting ‘walls’ are formed by lines of defensive positions running generally EAST to WEST and connecting the two NORTH to SOUTH belts at intervals of 4–5km and thus forming a series of ‘hollow’ areas.”

Murphy had identified the existence of Rommel’s ‘mine boxes’. He correctly assessed that these ‘hollows’ were designed to act as traps for attacking troops. He also noted that at least 150 Axis guns could be brought to bear on each one of the hollows. Murphy commented:

"Not only does the attack lose its direction but, after making a limited advance, it runs a gauntlet of fire into an angle of minefields and gun positions formed by one of the connecting ‘walls’ and the second belt."

He had divined exactly the design and intent of Rommel’s defensive system. The complex series of defensive positions in the northern sector were designed to dissipate the force of any attack while, in the more loosely defended south, the minefields were designed to channel any attack into more defensible terrain.

Murphy also noted that the distance between the 21st Panzer Division in the south and 15th Panzer Division in the north was not ‘great enough to prevent Africa Corps fighting as an entity once the direction of the main thrust is ascertained’. The forward battlegroups of the panzer divisions would be available for immediate counterattacks while the British point of main effort was being identified. The panzers would have the time and freedom to concentrate ‘uninterrupted save from the air’. The Afrika Korps would then be launched in a ‘full-scale counter-attack against the main British effort’. Murphy’s conclusions must have been sobering for Montgomery:

(1) The enemy will fight the battle according to the principles of the system he is developing at ALAMEIN. The factor of surprise will not affect these principles, which do not demand immediate knowledge of the direction of our main attack.
(2) 90 Light Division will abandon its coastal role so soon after the enemy appreciates a major attack is coming, probably after our first air blitz, i.e. D minus 1.
(3) Meanwhile the armoured divisions will concentrate on their chosen ground.
(4) Immediate counter-attacks by forward armoured battle-groups must be expected on D night wherever our penetration makes them necessary. These will, however, leave the main weight of the enemy armour uncommitted.
(5) Enemy air activity will concentrate on reconnaissance on D plus 1, possibly supporting his land forces in the Southern sector with fighter-bombers.
(6) So soon as the main direction of our attack is appreciated, German Africa Corps will be concentrated for counter-attack. Responsibility for the SOUTH will pass to ARIETE, stiffened by a battle-group of 90 Light Division.
(7) Stukas will be conserved for use against our main effort.

Murphy had provided Montgomery and his commanders with an excellent intelligence briefing of the Axis defences and probable reaction to any offensive. While Montgomery had placed considerable emphasis upon surprise and deception as a means of wrong-footing his opponent, Murphy’s analysis suggested that Rommel’s defence plan would be effective even if the British did achieve tactical surprise. The defences which confronted Eighth Army in the northern sector were also far more formidable than Montgomery had realised when he first wrote his battle plan. In these circumstances it was indeed highly unlikely that 10th Corps would be able to pass through six miles of defences in one night. Even if the British armour was able to navigate its way through the Axis ‘cockpit’ in one night, they would then have to face a counterattack from the full weight of the Afrika Korps within hours. The plan would have to be changed.

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Pendelum of War , Three Battles of Alamein , Nial Barr

On 6 October 1942, Montgomery issued his second memorandum on Operation Lightfoot. It re-emphasised the need for secrecy and surprise but he now admitted that the enemy would know that a British offensive was coming. Instead, tactical surprise had to be gained by hoodwinking ‘the enemy as to exactly where the blows will fall. We must not slip up in these arrangements.’

Montgomery also acknowledged that the Axis defences were being strengthened and that both 13th and 30th Corps must patrol vigorously to locate the ‘exact positions of defences, wire, booby traps etc’. In discussing the plan of battle, he stated:

“It is a regrettable fact that our troops are not, in all cases, highly trained. We must therefore ensure that we fight the battle in our own way, that we stage manage the battle to suit the state of training of our troops, and that we keep well balanced at all times so that we can ignore enemy thrusts and can proceed relentlessly with our own plans to destroy the enemy.”

Montgomery used the state of training within Eighth Army to justify his caution just as he had at Alam Halfa. Certainly, some units like 44th (Home Counties) and 51st (Highland) Divisions did require more training and experience in desert fighting. He stated, ‘we should keep well within ourselves, and should not attempt ambitious operations beyond the capabilities of our somewhat untrained troops’. However, Montgomery could not admit, either at the time or subsequently, that his plan asked too much of Eighth Army regardless of its training.

The changes to the plan were relatively minor. 30th Corps was still to seize a bridgehead. 10th Corps was still tasked with passing through the minefields in one night. 13th Corps’ objective remained the conduct of a diversionary attack but now it was explicitly stated that 7th Armoured Division was to be kept ‘in being’ and that 4th Light Armoured Brigade would ‘not be launched to DABA until order by Army H.Q.’.

The real difference in the altered plan lay in its intent. While the original plan had envisaged 10th Corps fighting a rapid and decisive battle with the Afrika Korps, the new plan emphasised the ‘methodical destruction’ of the Axis troops holding the defences. 30th Corps, having seized the bridgehead, would engage in a series of ‘crumbling’ attacks to destroy the Axis infantry. 9th Australian Division would attack to the north, while 2nd New Zealand and 1st South African were to work southwards from the Miteiriya ridge. Meanwhile, 51st (Highland) Division would have to hold an increasing area of the original bridgehead.

Nigel Hamilton has argued that Montgomery altered his plan because of a ‘mutiny’ amongst his armoured commanders at the 10th Corps Conference on 7 October, but in fact Montgomery had already altered his plan the day before. It is clear that the alterations were forced by Murphy’s intelligence appreciation. The new plan did not change the fact that the armour had to break through the minefields in one night but altered their task once they had fought their way through. Montgomery insisted that the armoured brigades had to move into the mine corridors before it was known whether they were completely clear. He also demanded that if the corridors had not been fully cleared during the night, the armoured brigades were to fight ‘their own way out into the open’. He left Lumsden in no doubt that the armour ‘must and shall go through’. 10th Corps’ function remained the destruction of the Axis armour but now also included preventing the panzers from interfering with the infantry’s ‘crumbling’ operations.

The new plan was avowedly attritional. Eighth Army would now slowly ‘eat the guts’ out of its enemy while fending off Axis counterattacks until the destruction of the Panzer Army was assured. These ‘crumbling’ attacks were a modification of Auchinleck’s previous strategy which targeted the Italian infantry divisions. Eighth Army could not now direct attacks solely at Italian formations because of the ‘corseting’ of the Axis army but would, over time, destroy the Axis infantry so that eventually the Panzer Army could no longer hold its defences. Montgomery fully acknowledged that fierce fighting would have to take place and emphasised the importance of ‘determined leading’ in what was now going to be a ‘killing match’ over a ‘prolonged period’.

monty Egypt

Montgomery in Alamein


However, Montgomery still did not discuss what would happen when the killing match was over and the Panzer Army obviously defeated. The lack of any developed plan for exploitation and pursuit was highly significant. Montgomery’s failure to plan beyond the killing match was to have important consequences at the conclusion of the forthcoming battle.

Montgomery’s eventual decision to fight an attritional battle has to be seen within its proper context. Eighth Army’s numerical superiority was never as great as the bald statistics would suggest. Overall, Eighth Army possessed a rough two to one advantage over the Panzer Army. It has to be said that Montgomery encouraged his men to think in these broad terms when he wrote:

“If every tank crew, and every 6-pdr A.Tk. gun team, will hit and disable one enemy tank, then we must win. If every disabled enemy tank is destroyed at once by the RE before it can be towed away, our win becomes all the easier. These, and other facts, must be got across to the troops in no uncertain voice. They must be worked up to that state which will make them want to go into battle and kill Germans.”

This simplistic statement was highly reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc’s much ridiculed view of trench fighting in the Great War and about as realistic.

The force ratios that would determine the outcome of the battle were those within the 30 Corps bridgehead. Eighth Army’s four assaulting infantry divisions were confronted by two dug-in infantry divisions. The German 164th Light Division had roughly 9,000 men, 180 5cm anti-tank guns, 24 field guns and 18 75mm infantry guns. The Trento Division was composed of just 4,600 men with 48 field guns and 70 anti-tank guns. There were also 16 88mm guns deployed within the various strongpoints. Deployed behind these two divisions were three mixed battlegroups of the 15th PanzerDivision and Littorio Armored Division. The two infantry divisions were also supported by 13 heavy, 70 medium and 160 field guns – a total of 243 artillery pieces. Thus, at the point of attack, 30th Corps did not quite have a two to one superiority ratio in artillery and actually had fewer medium guns. This was well below the three to one ratio of forces which was generally considered necessary before a straightforward frontal assault could succeed.

An additional problem lay in the fact that only a few of Eighth Army’s assaulting infantry divisions could actually sustain heavy fighting for long periods. The 9th Australian Division and 51st (Highland) Division were up to strength and had sufficient replacements in Egypt to make up significant losses. Leese considered that these divisions were capable of ‘sustained offensive action’. Although he described the 2nd New Zealand Division as a ‘grand division’, there were no reinforcements available and this meant that the division was ‘incapable of sustained action’. The same was true of the 1st South African Division which was under strength, had no replacements and was due to be reorganised into an armoured division immediately after the battle. This meant that of the four infantry divisions in 30th Corps, only two were capable of mounting more than one major assault. 4th Indian Division, commanded by Major-General Francis Tuker, had two brigades which were ‘only capable of holding the line and could only be relied on provided they were very well mined and wired in’. Only the 5th Indian Brigade, under Brigadier Russell, was considered capable of attacking. The original plan had tasked 4th Indian Division with mounting a series of raids from its position on the Ruweisat ridge but de Guingand advised strongly against this. He felt that ‘until the enemy really crumples up it is better to keep a solid defence on RUWEISAT Ridge’

There were two root causes of the limits of ‘sustained action’ that each infantry division could undertake. The first was that, although an infantry division might muster as many as 17,000 men, the strength of rifle companies that could actually go forward into an assault was much lower. Many soldiers in each division were absorbed into the supply and administrative echelons as well as the multitude of specialised and supporting arms. This meant that each of the nine infantry battalions in a division held only 400 to 500 riflemen. Heavy casualties in the rifle companies would not shatter the division but they would render it incapable of mounting attacks.

Although the total number of men available within Eighth Army looked impressive there were distinct limits as to how that manpower could be used. Eighth Army contained many weak infantry battalions which could not be amalgamated to provide reinforcements for others. It was politically quite impossible, for example, to break up an Indian battalion to provide replacements for the New Zealand Division or vice versa. The lack of flexibility inherent in the make-up of this Imperial army meant that much of its manpower advantage simply could not be brought to bear effectively.

At the same time, Eighth Army did have a significant superiority in tanks but, crucially, not in artillery or anti-tank guns. The Sherman and Grant tanks certainly outmatched the vast majority of the German tanks and were available in quantity but Eighth Army’s superiority in tanks was less profound when the large numbers of ‘obsolete’ Crusaders, Valentines and Honeys still equipping British units were taken into consideration. Eighth Army’s numerical superiority in tanks would also count for very little unless the armoured brigades could reach the open desert and deploy properly.

Although the Panzer Army was heavily outnumbered in tanks, this was less important in defence than the number of Axis anti-tank guns. Indeed, the Panzerarmee’s anti-tank and mine defences were specifically designed to negate Eighth Army’s advantage in armour and the large number of Axis anti-tank guns available meant that the British armoured brigades faced a real challenge. Most were dug in with only their barrels showing above the surface of the desert. This meant that British tank regiments were likely to suffer heavy losses before they could even see the guns that inflicted the damage. Unless the infantry of 30th Corps could break through these defences, the armour of 10th Corps would not be able to press home its numerical advantage and might well sustain crippling losses from the Panzer Army’s anti-tank-gun defence.

Thus, even in its altered form, the plan for Operation Lightfoot remained highly ambitious. It was only after the plan had been changed that Montgomery and de Guingand became fully aware of the misgivings held by the armour commanders. On 7 October, Lumsden held a 10th Corps Conference to discuss the details of the plan. Montgomery was absent, delivering a lecture to the Staff College at Haifa, and de Guingand attended in his stead. The armour commanders of 10th Corps went on to have a much fuller and franker discussion than would have occurred had Montgomery been present. Monty’s use of de Guingand as his eyes and ears at such conferences was actually a very clever management technique.

There was a lengthy discussion on the movement of the corps from its assembly areas in the rear to the forward defended localities of the British line. 30th Corps’ rear areas would already be crammed with all the supporting transport required by the attacking divisions and the gun positions of the artillery. At the same time, 10th Corps had to drive forward, refuel and then be ready for the signal to pass through the minefield gaps. Lumsden emphasised the need for the leading regiments to be close to the British front line otherwise ‘his armoured brigades could not get through to the West of the “bridgeheads” by first light’. Brigadier Walsh, the Brigadier General Staff of 30th Corps, believed that, because of the congestion, 10th Corps should not be moved west of the ‘Springbok’ track before 03.00 hours. This gave very little time for 10th Corps to make the move through the minefields before dawn and the consensus within 10th Corps was:

"In order to get the armoured brigades through in time, they must start from the general line of SPRINGBOK Road not later than 0100 hours. The Divisional commanders were very insistent that they must not be caught with their Brigades in the ‘funnels’ by daylight. "

Lumsden informed his commanders that the order to advance would be decided by the Army Commander and might well be given ‘even before 30 Corps had entirely completed their gaps’.


General Herbert Lumsden , former 1st Armored Div and 10th Corps commander

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Leese followed up the conference with a letter to his divisional commanders the next day. He informed them that ‘we must have zero hour a bit earlier’ and hoped to bring it forward to 21.30 hours unless it was considered ‘definitely not feasible’. While Wimberley and Pienaar (South African Division commander) do not seem to have had any objection, Morshead was adamant that ‘there must be some relaxation before the fight’. He explained that after a day of ‘solitary confinement in a tight-fitting grave-like pit awaiting the hard and bloody battle’ the men had to eat their dinner, listen to final instructions, make final preparations and then march up to the start line. Leese deferred to Morshead’s experience of handling men in battle.

On 12 October, Leese wrote to Wimberley concerning the attack frontage of the Highland Division. Morshead had mentioned to Leese that he did not think it was possible for ‘a Bn. to maintain its momentum and have sufficient weight to attack available if it has to go to the extreme depth allotted by you to two of your battalions’.29 The problem was that the frontage of 51st (Highland) Division increased from 2,500 yards at the start line to 5,000 yards at the final objective. Wimberley had solved this difficult problem by tasking the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the 7th Black Watch with going through from the start line all the way to the final objective. Leese, after taking advice from both Morshead and Freyberg, suggested that Wimberley should increase his battalion frontage from 600 to 800 yards to enable his division to cover the wide frontage allotted to him. Leese also passed on useful hints from the New Zealanders and Australians drawn from their wide battle experience. He concluded by reminding Wimberley that Montgomery was willing ‘to accept casualties in tanks in order to ensure during the night we gained the bridge-head’. In fact, given the extensive front that his division had to cover, Wimberley felt forced to stick with his original plan and push his central battalions all the way to the final objective.


On 14 October, with the time for planning and preparation running out, Leese addressed a final letter to his divisional commanders. He emphasised the need to ‘seize the bridge-head in time to pass the armour of 10 Corps through by first light’ and reminded his commanders that they could use the Valentine tanks of 23rd Armoured Brigade, the Scorpion mine-clearing tanks and ‘any other means at your disposal in any way during the battle which you consider best to achieve this object’. Leese noted that all the tanks allotted to each division should practise close cooperation with infantry through small exercises of a company of infantry and a squadron of tanks.The striking feature of all the debates and discussions within 30th Corps is how well Oliver Leese coordinated the planning of three very different divisions with three contrasting commanding officers. Leese used the experience and expertise of the Australians and New Zealanders to help the Highlanders while at the same time ironing out as many problems as possible.

It is remarkable that neither of Montgomery’s plans sketched out the contribution of the artillery or engineers in any detail. Instead, he delegated complete responsibility for the planning and preparation of these two vital areas to Brigadier Sidney Kirkman, the Brigadier Royal Artillery of Eighth Army, and Frederick Kisch, the Chief Engineer of Eighth Army. Montgomery trusted both men and their technical expertise to deliver what was needed.


Brigadier Frederick Kisch , Chief of Engineers , Eighth Army

Kisch had an awesome responsibility in ensuring that his sappers would gap the formidable Axis minefields in one night. Eighth Army’s previous experience of mine-clearing operations, particularly in July, was not encouraging and the fact that the engineers of Eighth Army largely overcame the problem of the minefields was a major achievement.

In each division, all the engineers were under the control of the Commander Royal Engineers who then allotted resources to brigades for the operation. The engineers of 10th Corps had to make two main ‘corridors’ through the Axis minefields. The 1st Armoured Division corridor lay on the boundary between the 51st (Highland) and the 9th Australian Divisions, while the gaps for 10th Armoured Division would be made within 2nd New Zealand Division’s area. Each armoured division needed three lanes at least 40 yards wide cut through the minefields. The engineers of each division’s minefield task force expected that they would have to clear gaps in as many as four minefields, each 400 yards deep, to a total depth of 6,000 yards. At the same time, the sappers attached to the assaulting infantry divisions needed to cut at least three 16-yard wide lanes through the minefields so that their supporting arms and equipment could be brought up to the front line. At least 18 lanes would have to be cut during that first night by the sappers of 30 Corps.

A task of such unprecedented difficulty and complexity required thorough preparation because, as the Royal Australian Engineers’ report emphasised, ‘The Preliminary Work was, and always will be as far as Engineers are concerned, the most important part of the operation.’ The engineers’ preparations, which began in early August, were crucial to the success of the coming battle.

Kisch held a conference in early August with all the corps and divisional Commander Royal Engineers on the problem of mine clearance. The whole issue was discussed and he asked every commander to submit a written report on their views of current methods and possible improvements. Lieutenant-Colonel F. M. H. Hanson, of the 2nd New Zealand Division, took a jaundiced view of this request. He replied, ‘Reports on mine-clearing along the lines requested have at various times been prepared by 2 NZ Div for EIGHTH ARMY, NINTH ARMY, 13 Corps, 30 Corps, 10 Corps and others’.

To the experienced engineers of the New Zealand Division much of this effort must have seemed like the reinvention of the wheel. So many attempts to regularise mine-lifting had been made but no central authority had collated the reports and made concrete progress. Nonetheless, Hanson provided useful information concerning the minefield clearance drill which operated in his division. He suggested that each party should consist of one non-commissioned officer, eight men and one mine detector. During daylight it was estimated that this party could clear a four-yard gap through a 400-yard minefield in 30 minutes. Therefore to clear a 50-yard gap through a 400-yard minefield at night in the same time would require 12 mine parties.

This time, the valuable experience contained in such replies from all the units of Eighth Army did not go to waste. Kisch sent for Major Peter Moore, a highly experienced sapper officer who had just left hospital, handed him all the reports and said, ‘I am sure that there should be a drill for this . . . When you have worked out a drill and I have approved it, you will form the Eighth Army School of Mine Clearance.’ Moore later explained:

“The lack of uniform method had led to Divisional Engineers being asked to perform impossible tasks or being asked to make gaps which were quite inadequate for the tactical operations in view. CsRE also had no reliable data on which to give advice to their divisional commanders.”

The school was duly established at Burg el Arab and Moore, assisted by the chief instructor, Major A. R. Currie, worked hard on experiments to discover the best way to gap minefields. The engineers of each division brought experience from different operations but all had encountered similar problems. The New Zealand sappers had the bitter experiences of Operations Bacon and Splendour to reflect upon, the South African sappers had considered the problems highlighted by Manhood, while the Australians’ first experience of the difficulties in mine-gapping came as late as Bulimba. The main lessons from all the experiments and exercises conducted by the engineers were that:

“The Detector, except on very rocky ground or in newly laid fields, was the quickest means of clearing mines, and the only reliable one. The choice of ground for any proposed gap was extremely important. Tapes were required to keep clearance parties going straight. Operation of the detector itself was an important skill which must be taught as a drill.”

Through the medium of the school, all these points and the lessons from accumulated experience were collated and used by Moore to produce the final standard drill for mine-lifting and the marking of minefield gaps. The engineers of each division were able to modify the standard drill but the uniform method provided a benchmark for all future operations.

The Eighth Army drill was designed to clear a 40-yard gap in a minefield 400 yards deep with the sappers using mine detectors to assist them. The Australian sappers noted drily that it was only after Bulimba that the mine detector ‘emerged from the status of a rare museum piece and appeared in quantities approaching reasonable proportions’. In fact, the relative shortage of detectors remained a problem throughout the preparatory period and even during the battle.

The British Mark IV, the ‘Polish’ and the ‘Goldak’ were the three main types of detectors available to the sappers, although all three used the same basic technology. These devices were all based on an early form of a metal detector with a metal search loop which was mounted on the end of a pole. This was connected to a man-pack battery and a set of earphones. The operator would ‘sweep’ the ground with the detector while listening to a constant hum in the earphones and, when the search loop entered the magnetic field of a metal object, the hum would change in tone or stop, depending on the model of the detector. Of course, the detector could not differentiate between a metal mine and other debris such as shell fragments or food tins. Nonetheless, the detector provided a far superior and faster method of searching for mines than the crude method of prodding with the bayonet.

However, it was noted:

“Should detectors not be available, or the fire be too heavy for the operators to work effectively standing upright, approximately the same drill . . . is used, substituting prodding with bayonets for searching with detectors, but the results are far less sure.”


Mine detector

Mine clearing


German S mine

The drill was found to be efficient and successful by all the divisions of Eighth Army, although most adapted the drill so that it worked efficiently with fewer sappers. The standardisation of mine-lifting and gapping meant that the timings for this complex operation were relatively consistent throughout the army.

The School of Minefield Clearance also experimented with a number of devices to assist the sappers in their difficult task. The most famous of these devices was the Scorpion Mk I Flail Tank which was designed to clear a path through a minefield. The Scorpion was a Matilda Infantry Tank with two steel arms fitted to its front. The arms held a circular steel drum three feet above the ground. Wire ropes with short lengths of heavy steel chain at the end were fixed to the drum which was spun by a Ford V8 engine mounted in a small armour-plated compartment on the side of the tank. When a minefield was detected, the Scorpion would turn on its rotor and move forwards at little more than one mile an hour. The spinning chains thrashed the ground in front of the tank to explode any mines in its path. Each Scorpion could clear a nine-foot gap and three moving in echelon could clear an eight-yard gap. Throughout all of the tests, the Scorpions never missed a mine but the V8 engine was poorly ventilated and tended to overheat. Another problem was that a Scorpion ‘made an almost incredible amount of dust when operating, and the driver had to be sealed into his compartment while the sapper driving the flail engine had to wear a respirator’. Not surprisingly, it was fully recognised that the Scorpion was still an experimental vehicle and could not be relied upon for the main mine-clearing effort. There were only a few Scorpions available so each assaulting division held them in reserve for emergencies.


Scorpion Mk1 Flail tank

One of the great difficulties encountered with minefields was actually finding the edge of them. German engineers often scattered unmarked mines in front of the main field to complicate the task. Wheelbarrow or pram detectors, consisting of a tubular frame mounted on bicycle wheels, were designed to deal with this problem. These held an eight-foot wide search loop which could be pushed along by an operator looking for the edge of a minefield. A series of pilot vehicles were also developed to find the edge of a minefield or ‘prove’ a gap by driving along it. Lorries, their floors protected with sandbags, were used for this purpose. Punctured drums of diesel dripped onto the sand thus marking the width of the gap. These pilot vehicles became known as ‘snails’. Another type of pilot vehicle was a lorry with concrete-filled spiked rollers attached. The three-inch-long spikes on the rollers would set off any mines in the path of the vehicle giving a noisy indication of the front of the minefield. While none of these experimental vehicles were found to be completely satisfactory they demonstrated the ingenuity which Eighth Army’s engineers brought to the enormous task that confronted them.

In its short existence, the Eighth Army School of Minefield Clearance enabled Eighth Army’s engineers to collate and combine their experience into practical developments. The school had eight training teams which taught seven courses, each lasting eight days, from 26 August until 20 October. In the course of just two months, the engineers of Eighth Army, using their previous experience and taking advantage of the new equipment that was becoming available, developed a rapid and flexible drill that would enable any minefield to be gapped efficiently and in a standardised way. This drill formed the bedrock for all future mine-clearance operations. At the same time, the experimental Scorpions began a path of development that led to the highly effective Sherman ‘crab’ mine clearance tank.

All these developments were crucial to the later success of the Allied armies in Europe. Similarly profound developments were affecting Eighth Army’s use of artillery. Its concentrated power had been one of the few encouraging developments during the July fighting and the static nature of the fighting at Alamein, combined with the breathing space from early August onwards, gave the Royal Artillery the time and space it needed to develop very sophisticated and effective tactics.


artillery 2

Even before Brigadier Sidney Kirkman arrived in September 1942, important changes had been instituted. However, he was a firm believer in the centralisation of artillery. Kirkman had been instrumental in restoring the artillery chain of command and introducing proper training for fireplans back in England. With Montgomery’s full backing, Kirkman restored the command authority of each divisional Commander Royal Artillery. However, these changes only applied to the British division in Eighth Army as none of the Dominion divisions had ever demoted their artillery commanders.

sidney kirkman

Brigadier Sidney Kirkman , artillery commander of Eighth Army

Not surprisingly, the fireplan for 30th Corps received by far the greatest attention. The artillery available to 30th Corps for Operation Lightfoot consisted of the guns from each of the four assaulting divisions, the 48 guns of 4th Indian Division, three medium regiments and three field regiments on loan from 10th Corps which made an impressive total of 408 field guns and 48 medium guns. This meant that the artillery was ‘very thick on the ground’ particularly in the salient between Tel el Makh Khad and the sea.

Although Montgomery’s orders placed Brigadier Mead Dennis, the commander of 30 Corps artillery, in overall control of these guns, it was decided to establish a separate headquarters to coordinate the activities of the three medium regiments. The field regiments loaned by 10th Corps were broken up and their regimental and battery headquarters were not used, in an effort to avoid further congestion.

As much of the artillery as possible had to be sited within 1,000 yards of the front line to ensure that it could reach out beyond the final objective which, at its deepest point, would be 8,000 yards from Eighth Army’s front. Reconnaissance of the likely sites had to be completed rapidly so that the ammunition dumping programme could be complete by 14 October. Dennis chose the gun areas and then conferred with each divisional artillery commander to make sure ‘he could fit his guns into the area’.

All the ammunition for the opening bombardment had to be pre-positioned and this became a Herculean task for the gunners. Six hundred rounds per field gun and 500 rounds per medium gun were dumped at each battery position. Every night for six nights groups of gunners in every divisional area had to work ferociously on this job in silence and with no smoking permitted. Every morning:

when the lorries departed in the half-light with loads of muffled and dishevelled gunners, a new batch of pits had been levelled off and disguised with stones and planted bushes, to simulate the surrounding desert.

The gunners who dug the pits and dumped the ammunition were told that it was an ‘ammunition dumping exercise’ but, not surprisingly, the men knew that something ‘big’ must be happening. Yet more ammunition was dumped in the wagon lines five miles behind the front which meant that every gun in 30th Corps had 1,000 rounds of ammunition before any more needed to be brought forward.

The fireplan of 30th Corps has been described as a ‘classic’ but it also represented a considerable advance from the methods used during the Great War. Much of the plan had to be designed around the infantry’s rate of advance which was eventually fixed at 100 yards every three minutes. This, at the very least, did hark back to the Great War. It was decided that ‘no useful purpose could be achieved by a barrage which would be thin everywhere and thick nowhere’ while also wasting ammunition. Ultimately, Freyberg and Wimberley did use some of their field regiments to fire a very thin barrage to guide the infantry forward but this was not a main feature of the fireplan. Far greater emphasis was placed upon counter-battery fire to neutralise the Axis guns and heavy concentrations on the Axis defended localities.

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Pendelum of War , Three Battles of Alamein , Niall Barr

Given the Axis superiority in heavy and medium guns which lay beyond the reach of most of the 25-pounder batteries, the counter-battery programme loomed large in the artillery preparations. In fact, work on the counter-battery organisation had been ongoing since early July. The 30 Corps counter-battery party office began in a very small way with just one officer and two clerks who were attached to the 7th Medium Regiment in the Alamein box. As the work increased and the sources of information grew more sophisticated, the party eventually grew and the small team had a great impact on the effectiveness of Eighth Army’s artillery.

The counter-battery office used a range of techniques to fix the locations of the Axis batteries. Observers from each battery in Eighth Army helped in counter-battery work by giving information on every shelling that occurred near them. However, the work of artillery intelligence officers was greatly complicated by the mixture of British, French, German, Italian and Russian guns used by the Axis artillery. It was often very difficult to identify the various Axis artillery formations.

The techniques of flash spotting and sound ranging, which had both been developed during the Great War, were also used to pinpoint the location of enemy batteries. Flash spotting depended on good observation of the enemy gun lines. Observers positioned across the length of the front would watch for any gun flash and, when spotted, estimate the range and bearing to the gun. These estimates could then be collated and, particularly if the enemy battery did not move, reasonably accurate locations could be built up over time.

Eighth Army had lost its survey battery in Tobruk and it was not until the middle of July that No. 1 Composite Survey Battery was deployed on the 30th Corps front. Ground visibility during the day was poor because of the effects of haze and mirage so a series of survey towers, between 30 and 80 feet high, were constructed behind the lines from the Ruweisat ridge to the coast. Bizarrely enough, the Axis batteries did not seem to understand the purpose of the platforms and only a few towers were ever shelled, probably because of the need to conserve limited ammunition stocks. From these platforms, observation parties from the survey battery surveyed the entire front and produced highly accurate maps of the enemy defences. From late July onwards, the observation posts were able to give very accurate and rapid locations at night and during the day when visibility permitted. The Axis batteries soon stopped firing at night altogether, as the heavy counterbombardment which any night firing provoked made such fire too dangerous.

The sound-ranging troop of the survey battery did not reach the front until early September. Sound ranging worked by picking up the noise of an enemy gun or battery firing through a series of microphones positioned across the front. Measuring the split-second differences at which each microphone picked up the sound of each firing enabled very accurate ranging of individual enemy batteries.

Just as in the Great War, aerial reconnaissance photographs provided the best form of intelligence for counter-battery work:

“It is doubtful if the enemy fully realises the extent and frequency with which he is photographed, or the uses to which the photos are put. Many of his methods of ‘foxing’ CB were rendered abortive by our air photos.”

During July, aerial reconnaissance photographs were only available intermittently and after long delays. This caused real problems for the counter-battery office and for operational planning. Given the importance of the aerial photographs provided by the Desert Air Force’s tactical reconnaissance aircraft, the facilities were rapidly improved. By the end of July it had been arranged that the whole Army front would be covered every four days. This engaged the tactical reconnaissance squadrons in a never-ending stream of work but the results were impressive. The photographs, taken at a height of 25,000 feet (which gave a scale of 1/15,000), provided good detail and could often give useful information on the damage caused by counter-battery fire. These detailed pictures meant that a large-scale map was slowly plotted of the entire length and depth of the Axis defences which included coordinates of strongpoints, minefields, wire, infantry posts and sometimes even individual guns.

By the beginning of October, most of the battle and alternate positions of Axis batteries had been located to within 100 yards. It was realised that heavy counterbombardments would now be counterproductive as they might force the Axis batteries to move to new locations. A silent policy was introduced and Eighth Army’s guns turned to minor harassing tasks instead. The success of the counter-battery policy of Eighth Army meant that ‘all the enemy artillery, as far as is known, was teed up in its battle positions ready to be hit’ when the offensive began.

The sophistication of Eighth Army’s counter-battery techniques were never matched by the Panzer Army. It was noted that, ‘The enemy proved himself very adept in adopting evasive measures against our CB fire but, as usual, singularly inept at carrying out CB work himself.’ This was due partly to the fact that the Afrika Korps had relied largely on the Luftwaffe to deal with hostile batteries in the past. Stuka dive-bombing of British batteries and aerial reconnaissance for Axis artillery had been very successful. However, by July 1942, the Luftwaffe in the desert was no longer the force that it had once been. The combination of fighters and effective anti-aircraft fire had made Stuka attacks very dangerous and the low-level reconnaissance necessary for artillery spotting impossible. Yet when Luftwaffe support disappeared, the German and Italian gunners did not invest in the other counter-battery methods which, more than ever, were essential in dealing with Eighth Army’s artillery. Over the four months of fighting in the Alamein line, Eighth Army only recorded ten counter-battery shoots on its guns and the German flash-spotting and sound-ranging teams were entirely inadequate. Maps captured in October showed that the German artillery had only a vague idea of the location of Eighth Army batteries and often identified old or dummy positions. Counter-battery work was never given the priority within the Panzer Army Afrika that it required. Once the Axis forces lost their habitual advantages, they seemed unable to adopt alternative methods to restore its previous dominance.

In contrast, Eighth Army’s artillery had painful experience of the former German air superiority and hitherto had been unable to rely on airpower to deal with enemy batteries. This was why they went to such lengths to ensure their own counter-battery capability at the very time that the Desert Air Force was finally able to assist them. The work of the counter-battery office progressed steadily over the months at Alamein and its contribution to the October offensive was immense. It played a major part in developing an inter-locking system of artillery capabilities that the Panzer Army Afrika was unable to match.

The detailed picture of the Axis positions developed for the counter-battery office also provided important intelligence for the entire army’s preparations. This detailed mapping enabled an elaborate system of defensive fire to be developed. Every Axis-defended locality was given a code name based on the counties of Ireland:

“These names were passed on to each Division. Thus if one Division was being heavily attacked, it merely had to ask for help on ‘Wexford’ on the wireless and all guns that could bear engaged ‘Wexford’ provided they were not busy on a timed programme of their own.”

This system enabled the artillery to give an unprecedented level of support to the forward troops.

Such support depended on reliable communications. A complete system of telephone cables linked each battery to its parent formation to provide reliable communications. A system of static land lines would have been a hopeless anachronism in the earlier desert campaigns but at El Alamein this ‘catered for all artillery communications and worked smoothly’. More generous allocations of wireless sets were also made to ensure reliable radio links and each battery received an extra three No. 19 sets for communication with armoured formations. Wireless communications were organised from each corps commander to all of the divisional artillery under his command, along with a lateral link to the two other corps. Each corps artillery commander also had a forward link to the field regiments which were tasked with counter-battery fire. This comprehensive system ensured that if wireless communication broke down for whatever reason, there was the alternative system of telephones and cable. Such a complicated system required a great deal of practice to bring about the required level of expertise and large-scale artillery exercises were held in August 1942 in each corps to practise the use of the wireless net.

With such a comprehensive communications system, the artillery of Eighth Army could then experiment with larger concentrations of fire. These had been practised in Britain but had been literally impossible to employ in previous desert operations. Brigadier Weir, as we have seen, was instrumental in developing proper fire drills within 2nd New Zealand Division and these techniques were disseminated throughout Eighth Army. Weir had recognised the need to develop standard techniques for delivering large volumes of fire on impromptu targets in a matter of minutes. While in Syria, the New Zealand training exercises had demonstrated the practicality of firing all 72 guns of the division on a single area target. He devised a rectangle 1,200 yards long and 600 yards deep whereby the coordinates of the centre point and the grid bearing of the perpendicular axis could be used to lay in every gun. The entire divisional artillery, firing seven rounds per gun, could put 504 evenly spaced rounds into the rectangle in three minutes. Weir discussed the technique with Brigadier Stanford, 13th Corps artillery commander, and suggested that he might use it as a standard technique within the corps. It was important to find a convenient code name and Weir suggested ‘STANK’ as closest to Stanford’s name. Eventually, after ‘STINK’ had been rejected, ‘STONK’, ‘which appeared to offend nobody’,79 was accepted as the code name. The ‘STONK’ was adopted as a fire drill by 2nd New Zealand Division in early 1942 and used to great effect during the July fighting and at Alam Halfa. During September 1942, once the New Zealand Division had moved to 10th Corps, Oliver Leese showed interest in the technique and ordered that it be adopted as a compulsory method for defensive fire throughout 30th Corps.

The method was also modified by Brigadier Dennis, the 30th Corps artillery commander, to produce a standard technique for the concentrated fire of the medium artillery regiments. Major John Gibbon, one of the chief staff officers who planned the 30 Corps artillery programme, recalled:

“A standard concentration of Medium artillery was laid down and known as a ‘STONK’. Details were circulated to formations but authority to call for this concentration was not delegated below Brigades . . . The standard concentration used was rectangular and covered 1,200x x 400x. It was primarily designed to stop an attack by enemy armour.”

The ‘STONK’ enabled the medium regiments to provide extremely heavy concentrations of fire very rapidly and Weir commented that ‘the effect of this in Desert country against troops in the open was fairly devastating’. The ‘STONK’ soon became a standard technique throughout the Royal Artillery.

Weir was also instrumental in reintroducing the creeping barrage as a form of infantry support. 2nd New Zealand Division carried out its major training exercise near the Wadi Natrun on 26–27 September in which the New Zealand infantry and artillery trained together with the newly joined 9th Armoured Brigade. Before the exercise, Freyberg remarked to Weir that the main difficulties for the infantry were the depth of the minefields and the problems of controlling the infantry battalions in the dark. Weir suggested the use of a creeping barrage to guide the infantry as they advanced. The curtain of shells, although thin by Great War standards, also helped to set the pace of advance with 100 yard ‘lifts’ every two minutes. Major John White, Freyberg’s personal assistant, suggested firing tracer shells from 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns to mark the brigade boundaries. Oliver Leese , 30th Corps commander saw the rehearsal and subsequently endorsed the ideas to the other assault divisions. It is no surprise that he considered Weir to be the best gunner in Eighth Army. His dissemination of Weir’s ideas throughout 30th Corps was crucial to the evolution of Eighth Army’s artillery techniques. Two of the four assault divisions eventually adopted a thin creeping barrage to support and guide the infantry while also firing heavy concentrations on known enemy localities.

Important changes also took place in the organisation of the anti-tank guns. The first six-pounder anti-tank guns had reached Eighth Army just before the battle of Gazala but there had been little time for training in the use of this new weapon. The value of the gun had been proved during the July fighting but it had been noted as early as June 1942 that:

“it is an awkward gun to fire owing to the difficult posture which has to be adopted by the No. 1 . . . These difficulties make it necessary to carry out considerable training and to allot a generous number of rounds for practice before a crew can be considered proficient.”

Until August 1942, Eighth Army could not implement the training that was necessary. In the breathing space before the British offensive in October 1942, every British anti-tank gunner was able finally to receive the training necessary to ensure proficiency in the new gun.

At the same time, the intense fighting and subsequent retreat into Egypt had completely disrupted the proposed changes in organisation whereby the anti-tank regiments were to be equipped with the six-pounder gun and the infantry battalions would receive the now surplus two-pounder guns. By late August, Eighth Army had a full complement of six-pounder guns and these changes could finally be implemented. For the first time, each infantry battalion now had eight two-pounder guns to provide its own organic protection against the panzers.

The development of artillery tactics during the Alamein campaign can be seen as a microcosm of the learning process which went on throughout Eighth Army. There was an awareness of repeated mistakes. Numerous training pamphlets had advocated the use of sound tactics, but the nature of desert fighting and the development of bad habits amongst many commanders and their troops had hampered their adoption. The static positions at El Alamein provided the time and conditions the artillery needed to reorganise itself and actually adopt tactics that were known to work. Before the October battle, it had become a sophisticated, responsive and flexible weapon of enormous power.

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Pendelum of War , Three Battles of Alamein , Niall Barr

A vast amount of work also took place behind the lines. The first convoys of new supplies, ammunition and equipment reached Suez only in mid-August but soon turned into a veritable flood. By the end of July, most of the administrative chaos caused by the retreat into Egypt had been cleared away and proper planning to support an offensive could begin. The geographical balance now favoured Eighth Army, which was just 60 miles from its main base area at El Amiriya, with depots there fed by excellent road and rail connections to the main port at Suez. Panzer Army Afrika, on the other hand, had pushed far beyond its safe supply limit.

The importance of local resources and manufacturing capacity to the British forces in the Middle East has often been overlooked. In 1939, General Wavell had grasped the importance of developing Egypt into an enormous supply depot and manufacturing base for British operations. Success in achieving this by 1942 was truly astonishing. By that time, much of the food consumed by Eighth Army was produced in the Middle East, potatoes were grown in Egypt and Syria, cattle imported from the Sudan, jams and marmalades bottled in Palestine, to name only a few of the items. Such local production schemes saved over a million tons of shipping over the course of 1942.



While the Royal Army Service Corps developed large local produce schemes for food, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps found means of manufacturing equipment and tools in Egypt. By June 1942, there were 25,380 military personnel employed on ordnance duties in the Middle East Command and there were more than 30,000 Egyptians in workshops and factories. In July 1942, a Royal Army Ordnance Corps officer wrote:

"During the last 34 months, the Corps . . . has been coping, day after day, with the imminent and enormous task of supplying a force which has grown in less than two years from 15,000 to over 800,000 men, scattered now from Malta to the borders of Baluchistan. It has had to improvise, by local purchase, and manufacture in its own workshops, many millions of things which otherwise would have had to come 3000 miles by sea from India, or 15,000 miles from the United Kingdom round the Cape. It has had not only to supply the needs of, but to maintain at every turn, the fighting soldier in the field. What that simple statement implies is something which no previous Corps of Ordnance in the world has ever had to do. "

Base depots and workshops constructed in Egypt coped with these demands and churned out an enormous quantity and variety of equipment, tools and supplies. The amount of work accomplished was enormous. The workshops at Abbasia were the largest production centre in Egypt, employing 12,000 men by July 1942 and producing:

“an immense variety of work . . . in June 1942 the workshops had over 900 separate jobs on hand, from notice boards to A. A. mountings, from meat-safes to carriers for sterilised blood-bottles, from 12,000 crates for Molotov cocktails to 25,000 trestle tops for tables. Shell and ammunition gauges and extractors of all kinds, fire ladders, open sights for 25 pounders, chairs, covers for machine guns, magnetic detectors of A/T mines, hospital trolleys, jigs, pistons, saddlery, yakdans [the sheepskin jacket beloved by Eighth Army officers], swivelchairs for tanks, tool chests, steel tent pins, special armourers instruments etc. were only a few of these varied and special requirements.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment paid to this shop was by an Ordnance Mechanical Engineer newly out from England who visited it and remarked that if the War Office were to see this, they simply wouldn’t believe their own eyes’.

The true achievement of the Royal Army Service Corps and Royal Army Ordnance Corps in planning, constructing and managing such a vast enterprise has rarely been acknowledged, but without such endeavours the Eighth Army could not have operated in the desert. Beyond that, the factories, workshops and supply dumps that had been slowly developed in Egypt made it possible for Middle East Command to prepare, process and deliver the vast quantities of men, materiel and equipment that now began to arrive at Suez.

In addition to the complete formations that joined Eighth Army, more than 41,000 reinforcements flowed through two personnel reinforcement camps from August until 23 October. All these men had to receive training and equipment before being sent on to their units.

One of the critical shortages consistently hampering operations was that of motor transport. Service in the desert wore out trucks and lorries faster than they could be repaired or replaced and after the losses of the retreat into Egypt, Eighth Army was 25 per cent under strength in transport. However, the efforts to establish assembly plants in Egypt were almost complete by July 1942. Vehicles had initially been transported to Egypt fully assembled, which wasted a great deal of shipping space. In June 1941 the first assembly plant was erected at Ataka, west of Suez. Parts could be shipped to Egypt far more efficiently and by August 1942 there were four such assembly plants in operation able to turn out a total of 180 vehicles a day. By October, vehicles for the equivalent of 36 three-ton general transport companies, nine water tank companies, six tank transporter companies and one bulk petrol transport company had all been assembled and delivered to Eighth Army. General Headquarters also held a reserve of seven general transport companies. This comparative abundance of transport meant that the Royal Army Service Corps was able to meet the voracious demands of Eighth Army and prepare for an eventual advance.

Perhaps more important than the mass of ordinary vehicles and lorries which filled the roads behind Eighth Army were the recovery vehicles, tractors and tank transporters, which were vital for recovering damaged tanks. Eighth Army had suffered from a crippling lack of such vehicles throughout its existence, and even by scouring the entire Middle East Command only 29 tank transporters, 51 six-wheeled breakdown tractors and 79 three-ton breakdown vehicles reached Eighth Army for the offensive. Nonetheless, such numbers, even though they did not meet the full demands of the recovery units, were an undreamt of luxury for troops who had become used to chronic shortage.

This effort was coordinated with a major administrative change in the way that Eighth Army handled vehicle maintenance, recovery and repair. The crisis in tank repair in early July that had threatened to starve the army of tanks finally forced recognition that this important task had not been given the status or resources it needed. There was a widespread belief, often unfounded, that German recovery, repair and maintenance methods were superior. An aggrieved ordnance officer wrote in July 1942:

“The British Army, true to its studied habit of under statement and self-depreciation has somehow tacitly assumed that the Germans miraculously whisked crippled tanks out of battle and put them back whole a few days later.”

The Royal Army Ordnance Corps engineering workshops and recovery sections had in fact achieved impressive results in very difficult circumstances. It was also found later that the high standards achieved by the Afrika Korps in Libya were not matched by the rest of the Wehrmacht’s maintenance services. However, the multiplication of different corps responsible for vehicle maintenance and repair within Eighth Army was complicated and unhelpful. The Royal Engineers, Royal Army Service Corps and Royal Army Ordnance Corps maintained their own vehicles and equipment while the vehicles of all the other arms and corps in the Army were maintained by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps engineering branch.95 This led to considerable overlap and blurred responsibilities in an area of vital importance. In August 1942 it was decided to detach tank maintenance, repair and recovery from the overworked and overburdened Royal Army Ordnance Corps, and vehicle maintenance and repair from the Royal Army Service Corps, establishing instead an entirely new corps: the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. This was formed officially on 1 October 1942 through the amalgamation of the various engineering and maintenance units. While some members of the previous organisations were understandably upset at the changes, the formation of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers recognised the importance of vehicle maintenance in a mechanised war. By placing all such work in one organisation it also gained economies of scale. Since its formation generally required only a change in title and cap badge for most of the formations and personnel involved, Eighth Army and Middle East Command soon had a complete set of Army and base workshops with a single chain of command.

The Royal Army Ordnance Corps had had to struggle throughout 1940–42 with a dearth of personnel and equipment and the exponential demands of intense mechanised warfare. The formation of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, and the resulting priority and status given to vehicle maintenance and repair, meant that Eighth Army’s maintenance finally ‘surpassed Rommel with enormous benefit to the hitting power of our Armies everywhere’. As in so many spheres of effort, the sore trial of the desert campaigns had finally brought results by October 1942.

Middle East Command built up considerable reserves of fuel, ammunition, spares and supplies to feed the coming offensive:

Supplies:7 days for 10 Corps, 5 days for 13th Corps and 30 Corps , P.O.L.:500,000 gallons for 10 Corps. Ammunition:268,000 rds for 25-pdr; 12,800 rds for 4.5 in; 6,400 rds for 5.5 in

Yet the Eighth Army operational dumps were slim compared to the gargantuan quantities moved up before the battle of Gazala. The lesson had been learned: holding large stocks too close to the front risked their loss (risking capture by enemy) if the operational situation worsened. Nonetheless, these stocks, compared with the meagre supplies of the Panzer Army whose supply lines had been comprehensively choked by the Desert Air Force and Royal Navy, were more than sufficient. When Eighth Army went into action on 23 October, it was better supplied and equipped than ever before.

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Pendelum of War , Three Battles of Alamein , Niall Barr

Critical intelligence work was also taking place behind the lines. In Cairo, intelligence officers were assimilating the lessons from the capture of Seebohm’s Kompanie 621. Not surprisingly, the vital importance of the British ‘Y’ Service was finally recognised. The personnel engaged in Army ‘Y’ work almost doubled from 1,300 in May to 2,400 in October 1942. Learning the secrets of Seebohm’s success enabled the ‘Y’ Service to enhance their techniques and become more proficient in intercepting, translating and disseminating German tactical messages to the units which needed it. The signals intelligence work done in Cairo was finally coordinated with that undertaken at corps level and these developments made Eighth Army’s ‘Y’ Service much more effective.99 The destruction of Kompanie 621, moreover, reversed the balance of advantage in signals interception. From July 1942 onwards, British Army ‘Y’ gained far more from the airwaves than their German counterparts.

Similar developments were also taking place within the Army’s ‘J’ Service. The concept of a ‘J’ Service was first broached during Operation Crusader in November 1941, when Major Hugh Mainwaring had the idea of listening in to the forward wireless traffic of the advancing British armoured regiments. This served to give Eighth Army Headquarters a more rapid and impressionistic picture of the progress of the fighting than could be gained by waiting hours for divisional and corps reports to get back and enabled commanders to react more swiftly and appropriately to events on the battlefield. ‘J’ also became an important means of providing the RAF with rapid up-to-date information which could be used for planning air-support missions. ‘J’ was first extensively employed by Auchinleck during July and much valuable experience in its use was gained during the July battles. By August 1942, the ‘J’ Service was firmly established.

Eighth Army intelligence, signals interception and security thus made great strides during July and August 1942 and could be capitalised upon for the next phase of operations. That they developed so rapidly was perhaps due to the fact that their implementation did not depend on the heavily engaged front line units, but their effects were nonetheless profound. The flow of Enigma decrypts and ‘Y’ intercepts revealed a much clearer picture of the enemy at the same time as the ‘J’ Service was making much more rapid command decisions possible. The flaws present in Eighth Army’s conduct of operations in one key area had thus already been overcome by the end of July 1942. The British advantage in signals intelligence, security and command and control only became greater as the months passed.

The possibility that Panzer Army Afrika might discover when and where Eighth Army was about to attack entailed considerable risk. Advance warning would enable the Axis forces to prepare to meet the attack and, through a counter-bombardment, break up the offensive before it had even begun. This vital point had been recognised early. After the failure of Rommel’s last attempt to reach the Delta, it was obvious to both sides that Eighth Army would mount an attack at some point in the next few months. Any deception operation would be unable to disguise this fact, but it could mislead Axis intelligence officers as to its scale, scope, timing and direction.

There was almost no natural concealment possible in the desert. Both sides could use aerial reconnaissance and photography to investigate the ‘other side of the hill’. However, methods of concealment and camouflage had been developed by Eighth Army to a high standard by Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Barkas, the Director of Camouflage at General Headquarters Middle East. Prior to both Operation Compass and Crusader, deception measures had been undertaken with great success. At the start of Crusader strict wireless silence and the use of camouflage and dummy vehicles had enabled Eighth Army to drive far behind Axis lines before Rommel realised what was happening. Thus, while the static front at Alamein made such deception measures vital, their application by Eighth Army was not new.

Operation Bertram relied on the accumulated knowledge, developed over the previous three years, of deception measures effective in desert conditions. After writing the appreciation and plan’ for Lightfoot, Richardson was given the task of planning the deception operation. Richardson had had experience with Special Operations Executive’s ‘Black’ propaganda branch in 1941, and turned this to good use in planning Bertram. He considered the principal axis of attack in the north ‘horribly obvious’ but hoped to conceal the advent of offensive preparations and, even once this was no longer possible, to deceive the Axis intelligence officers as to the timing and sector where the offensive would be mounted. The orders for Bertram were issued on 14 September as part of Montgomery’s operation order for the offensive and work started very soon afterwards.

Within the overall operation a number of different schemes were undertaken. The dumps of stores, ammunition and petrol required by 10th and 30th Corps in the northern sector were comprehensively camouflaged. Food and supplies were built up into stacks to look like lorries and ‘the more coveted items (i.e. milk and sugar) were kept in the centre of the dump’ to guard against pilfering. Each dump had a resident unit to simulate normal camp life. The ammunition dump at Imayid covered an area of three square miles and contained every type of ammunition in use. An additional 500 stacks of ammunition were added to the existing stacks but were buried and covered by hessian and sand. Ordnance stores were also hidden under dummy vehicles while petrol tins were stacked in trenches that had been dug in 1941 and so were already familiar to Axis air reconnaissance. In Operation Brian open preparations and dumping were simulated in the south. Stacks of dummy stores including all kinds of engineer, ordnance, ammunition and supply dumps were mocked up from green steel wool, hessian, camouflage nets, old petrol tins and wire. The ‘Diamond’ dummy water pipeline was laid for 20 miles stretching into the southern sector. This elaborate affair included fake pump-houses, reservoirs and vehicles filling up with imaginary water.

Just as important was the concealment of the concentration and movements of forces for the attack. Under ‘Martello’ the future assembly areas of 2nd New Zealand and 51st (Highland) Divisions and the armoured divisions of 10th Corps were concealed. The assembly areas were filled up with 4,000 real and 450 dummy vehicles by 6 October so that Axis observers would become familiar with them. Perhaps the most important element of ‘Martello’ was the concealment of 360 guns in their assembly and battle positions. The 25-pounder guns, limbers and distinctively shaped Quad artillery tractors were all made to appear to be ordinary lorries using what was called the ‘cannibal’ method: the gun was pushed next to its limber and a hessian ‘lorry’ placed over them. Then the Quad tractor was given a false square rear. The result was that each 25-pounder gun, with its limber and Quad tractor, appeared to be two ordinary lorries. This simple yet effective method meant that the Axis could not detect the build-up of artillery positions prior to the attack. Unfortunately, rain and windstorms on 16 and 17 October blew about and damaged a large number of ‘sunshields’ and dummy vehicles. The camouflage sections had to work hard to repair the damage and maintain the ruse.

In ‘Murrayfield North’ and ‘Murrayfield South’ the moves of 1st Armoured Division and 24th Armoured Brigade were completed in two stages. The first stage was conducted openly and each division was deployed seemingly for use in the southern sector. 10th Armoured Division’s moves, codenamed ‘Melting Pot’, used a staging area in the far south to reinforce this picture. The second move to the real assembly areas by the armoured divisions was completed on the nights of 21 and 22 October and full replicas of all the tanks and transport of the divisions were left behind when the real ones had departed. One officer remembered:

“A fleet of lorries drove up to the leaguer and commenced unloading mountains of steel tubes and canvas. These were sorted out and in a few minutes an army of engineers was putting up structures in the tracks of the tanks. After a short while it could be seen that these were replicas of the tanks, and as the Regiment pulled out in the fading light it seemed rather as if they were departing spirits leaving their bodily structures in their last resting place.”

‘Ghost’ radio traffic was provided by signal sections to complete the illusion. Once in the northern sector, all the tanks were concealed under ‘sunshields’. More than 700 of these camouflaged frames, which made the tanks look like lorries, were built. One type was suitable for Grants and Shermans and the other for Crusaders.

The Royal Army Ordnance Corps and Royal Engineer camouflage sections constructed a total of 8,400 different dummy vehicles, dumps and devices of all kinds. Operation Bertram represented an effort in deception and camouflage ‘unequalled in military history’.In fact, this statement might well be extended to include all of Eighth Army’s preparations for battle. In the space of less than three months, it had engaged in the task of evolving its techniques and capabilities in a vast range of areas. The opportunity arose from the unique operational pause and the static nature of the front, but the incentive was the bitter experience garnered from two years of intense fighting.

Leese later wrote, ‘The battle was fought by one man – the Army Commander. It was conceived and carried out by him and was a great personal triumph for him.’ This is certainly what Montgomery himself also believed. However, the complicated negotiations within the 30th Corps planning process reveal a more interesting picture. The offensive plans used in July had indeed sprung from the mind of one man and had been littered with flaws and contradictions. There was never any time for proper debate and discussion. This encouraged ‘bellyaching’, and it also meant that the attacks had failed.

The strength of Operation Lightfoot plan lay in the fact that there were multiple authors and contributors. Montgomery provided the clear overall framework but the details were developed and settled further down the command chain. Eighth Army Headquarters worked rapidly and efficiently under Freddie de Guingand. In 30th Corps, Oliver Leese and his staff had translated Montgomery’s intentions into a practical corps plan. The divisional commanders had then sorted out all the fine details. This process had worked well throughout the army with the exception of 10th Corps where the personal animosity between Lumsden and Gatehouse created friction. Sidney Kirkman and Frederick Kisch had been given almost complete freedom to accomplish their part of the plan and succeeded brilliantly. So it may be said that Montgomery’s real strength lay not in the production of cast-iron omniscient plans but in his ability and skill to energise Eighth Army by using the talents and experience of the commanders serving under him.

Montgomery also insisted that every soldier within Eighth Army should understand his part in the plan. The demands of security meant that relatively few officers knew about it at first. But all brigadiers and Royal Engineer commanders knew the plan by 29 September. On 10 October, Montgomery spoke to every unit commander. The company and battery commanders were let into the secret on 17 October and on that day all leave was quietly stopped and all travel to Cairo and Alexandria forbidden. Montgomery insisted that 21 and 22 October had to be spent in ‘the most intensive propaganda as regards educating the attacking troops about the battle, and to getting them enthusiastic’. Every divisional commander held a series of conferences to ensure that his subordinates understood their tasks. At the last conference for all commanders held by 9th Australian Division, Morshead echoed Montgomery’s strictures for the coming fight. He told his commanders, ‘This battle will be real rough house’ that would require ‘determined leading’. Soldiers must not surrender even if surrounded: ‘They must be staunch Australians and not emulate the Italians.’ Morshead exhorted his commanders to ‘work, think, train, prepare, enthuse. We must regard ourselves as having been born for this battle.’ By the time the offensive opened, every soldier in Eighth Army knew his part in it.

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Pendelum of War , Three Battles of Alamein , Niall Barr

The Desert Air Force was also gearing up for the coming fight. Air Marshall ‘Mary’ Coningham also had many concerns in preparing his force. The growing number of American fighter and bomber squadrons available had to be integrated into the experienced ranks of the Desert Air Force while the existing squadrons were rested and trained. Coningham also had to struggle against the withdrawal of the Albacore squadrons and the sharp decline in his force of Wellington bombers. The Albacores were retained but while 130 serviceable Wellingtons had been available during July, by October there were only 80 left. This limited the capabilities of the night bomber force at exactly the moment their contribution was most needed. Nonetheless, in the months before the British offensive, the medium and heavy bombers of the Desert Air Force and the USAAF continued to pound Tobruk and Benghazi in night raids, as well as the other smaller harbours along the coast. The anti-shipping campaign continued and scored a number of successes against Axis merchant shipping.

On 9 October, Coningham mounted a ‘weather Blitz’ against the Axis forward airfields around El Daba, which had become waterlogged by heavy rains. The results for more than 400 fighter sorties and 88 tons of bombs were somewhat disappointing: only ten German aircraft were destroyed and another 13 damaged. Although this ‘blitz’ was an exceptional effort, the Desert Air Force maintained a constant pressure against the Axis landing grounds to ensure that the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica were always kept on the back foot.

The Axis air effort in Egypt was limited during September and October but not over Malta. Stocks of aviation fuel on the island were falling rapidly during September and British air operations had to be drastically curtailed. On 11 October, the Axis launched a final air offensive against the island in an attempt to neutralise it before the expected land battle in Egypt. The raids continued for eight days but even though 319 aircraft, fully a third of the Axis aircraft available in the theatre, had been committed to the attacks, the onslaught simply confirmed the superiority of the defending Spitfires. The strike force based on Malta was able to continue harrying Axis shipping even during the raids. In fact, the last Axis air offensive against Malta proved to be a major strategic blunder, drawing off air strength from Egypt at precisely the time when the beleaguered squadrons at El Daba and Fuka most needed reinforcements.

Montgomery had made clear on taking command of the Eighth Army that there must be close cooperation with the Desert Air Force. He emphasised that ‘whatever the military plan, it is vital that the air should be brought in from the start; it is not sufficient to decide on the plan and then to ask the RAF how it can help’. In fact, Eighth Army planning during July had already begun this process but Montgomery’s move of Eighth Army’s Main Headquarters to Burg el Arab to join the Desert Air Force Headquarters certainly encouraged close cooperation.

Although Montgomery had acknowledged the need for coordination, his plans for Operation Lightfoot barely mentioned the RAF. He quite clearly expected Coningham to undertake the detailed planning necessary to support the ground offensive. Yet the army’s need for deception and surprise before the attack and its insistence that the Panzer Army itself should not be disturbed by heavy preparatory bombing frustrated Tedder and Coningham. Tedder even wrote to Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, explaining:

“I am not very happy about Montgomery’s plans. . . . one of the main lessons of the past few months has been that the enemy strength has really been broken by the twenty-four hour day of almost incessant air attack . . . This factor should, I feel, have been exploited to the utmost in the next battle. . . . He will only concentrate if he is threatened on the land . . . I feel we should have made such a threat, giving us the opportunity from the air to hammer him and weaken him for three or four days before delivering the vital blow on land.”

Quite clearly, Tedder was guilty of overestimating the ability of airpower to force a decision. It seems remarkable that Tedder, after two years’ experience in the Middle East, could so misunderstand the realities of the challenge facing the Eighth Army or the importance of its carefully orchestrated deception plan. The Eighth Army and the Desert Air Force were now working together systematically and to great effect but they still did not necessarily understand one another.

However, although Operation Bertram denied the Desert Air Force the opportunity for round-the-clock bombing before the ground offensive, fighter squadrons provided almost continuous local air superiority, which severely limited the amount of Axis air reconnaissance over the Eighth Army. Coningham’s air plan for the offensive was designed to dovetail with the army’s requirements. The most important element was the retention of air superiority and the main guiding policy, once the ground battle began, was to give the maximum possible round-the-clock support to the army with fighter bombers, light bombers and medium bombers.

The Desert Air Force had built up an impressive total strength of 730 aircraft before the beginning of the offensive. However, out of the front-line strength of 420 fighters only 50 were Spitfires and nearly half were the now obsolete Hurricanes. The growing obsolescence of the majority of the fighters was a serious problem since the Luftwaffe in Egypt had been re-equipped with the Me109G. This matched the performance of the Spitfire and outclassed the Hurricane. The Axis air forces in North Africa possessed a similar strength with 770 aircraft but, crucially, a much lower service-ability rate. Coningham realised that the Desert Air Force had to overwhelm the Luftwaffe in Egypt before the offensive began to give his obsolete, but more numerous, fighters a fighting chance.

The air offensive actually began on 19 October, four days before the ground battle. A series of intensive attacks were concentrated on all the main Axis landing grounds at El Daba and Fuka. Over the next few nights Tobruk was heavily bombed while the forward landing grounds were attacked around the clock. These raids did not necessarily destroy many Axis aircraft but they certainly made it difficult for the Axis ground crews to keep their aircraft serviceable. By 23 October, the Stuka force had a serviceability rate of just 50 per cent and the fighter force was even more badly affected. On 23 October, not a single enemy aircraft was seen over Eighth Army’s positions and throughout the day a continuous fighter patrol was maintained over the Axis forward fighter landing grounds without challenge. This meant that the vast and complicated moves of Eighth Army into its battle positions went unobserved by any Axis air reconnaissance. The pre-battle air offensive was a considerable success and ensured that there was no serious challenge to the Desert Air Force’s dominance throughout the coming battle.

While British preparations reached their final pitch of intensity, Axis units across the front watched anxiously for signs of the imminent offensive. 33 Reconnaissance Battalion, which had been watching the sector south of the Munassib depression since early September, reported on 9 October that it discounted any major attack from the Qattara Depression but thought such an attack was very likely between Point 153 (two miles north of Himeimat) and Deir el Munassib. Operation Bertram had been designed precisely to mislead the Panzerarmee into believing that this would be the main axis of attack. However, on 10 October, the Panzer Army intelligence section reported to Kesselring in Rome :

“The British may launch an offensive soon. The enemy will need at least 3–4 days to bring up his artillery and assault troops. Pz Army thinks that the main weight of the enemy attack will be south of Ruweisat, and perhaps also on either side of the coast road.”

Axis intelligence had correctly identified the most likely sectors for attack but made the erroneous assumption that the British would not be able to conceal the massing of forces beforehand.

Under Stumme’s direction, the units of the Panzer Army had continued to develop their defences. He was fully aware of the supply crisis and ordered the utmost economy in the use of petrol. Furthermore, ‘the ammunition situation compels us to be most sparing in its use, especially while the present quiet period lasts’. The enforced economy made October the quietest month at Alamein, although infantry patrols and artillery bombardments continued. Besides the lack of supplies for Panzer Army (the booty captured in RTobruk was almost consumed) meant that rations for Axis trops at Alamein were reduced and the food was in bad quality , undernourishment , disease anbd bad hygine was slowly increasing sick lists in Panzer Army ranks. Especially Italian units were badly struck with disease so much that when British and Dominion troops captured Italian positions incoming attack they refused to enter Italian trenches due to filth in them.

Even with these difficulties, Stumme estimated that ‘with reasonable care in the expenditure of ammunition and in the movement of motorised formations it will be possible to conduct a defensive campaign’. Indeed, Stumme was planning to mount an ambitious counterattack against any Eighth Army breakthrough. On 15 October, he explained that if Eighth Army broke through south of Deir el Munassib, on either side of Ruweisat or on the coast road, the plan would be:

“to hold him frontally and use the motorised formations to launch pincers counter attacks against him, surround him and destroy him. It may become necessary . . . for battle groups of Afrika Korps and 20th Italian Corps to move east through our minefields to launch a concentric attack, in order to make the pincer movement as effective as possible.”

Panzer Army was certainly not a passive force awaiting its doom. On 20 October, just as the commanders of Eighth Army were boosting their own troops’ morale, Stumme reminded his commanders:

“The enemy is by no means certain of victory. We must increase that uncertainty every day. . . . The feeling of complete moral superiority over the enemy must be awakened and fostered in every soldier, from the highest commander to the youngest man. . . . From this moral superiority comes coolness, confidence, self-reliance and an unshakeable will to fight. This is the secret of every victory.”

Eighth Army was about to face a stern test of determination, not just a trial of strength.

Yet as the vast collection of men, tanks, vehicles and guns moved forward to their assembly points, Bertram, in a triumph of organisation, concealed their movements. While the operation did not deceive the Axis intelligence officers as to the scale or scope of the coming offensive, or even fully convince them that the attack would fall in the south, the British deception measures ensured that the Panzer Army’s intelligence officers did not gain the clear evidence of the British build-up they needed to make full preparations.

As late as 23 October, the Panzer Army’s daily report stated: ‘Enemy situation unchanged. Quiet day all along the front, with normal enemy artillery H[ostile] F[ire].’ The German and Italian troops of the Panzer Army Afrika were tense and expectant. They knew that the British would launch their attack soon but they had no notion of the storm that was about to break upon their heads.


Phew , Niall Barr wrote quite a bit on this issue


Wow this is a massive post and very Impressive. Thank you!


Destiny in Desert , The Road to Alamein - Jonathan Dimbleby


‘Victory finds a hundred fathers but defeat is an orphan.

’Count Galeazzo Ciano

The Prime Minister had returned to London on 24 August following his gruelling trip to the Middle East and Moscow in the confident belief that the planning for Operation Torch was well underway. Instead, he found himself on the receiving end of what he described as ‘a bombshell’ from Washington – a change of heart by the American Chiefs of Staff which promised to unravel the whole operation, and thereby torpedo Churchill’s entire war strategy, which he had developed with such energetic diligence over the last six months.

While Churchill had been away, the old divisions between London and Washington over Torch had resurfaced with a vengeance. So far from moving towards agreement on the military details of an immensely complex operation, the American Joint Chiefs were at loggerheads with their British counterparts over virtually every significant part of the plan. On 6 August it had been agreed that General Eisenhower should be put in command of Torch but – as though to demonstrate that any agreement between allies is as hard to achieve as a treaty between adversaries – every other issue of any substance was in bitter dispute: from the number of troops required and where they should be landed, to the timetable of the operation and what role should be played by each part of the Allied coalition.

Torch had originally been designed as part of a co-ordinated pincer movement intended to eliminate the Axis presence from North Africa, the ‘true Second Front’ which Churchill had promised Roosevelt. The original plan envisaged an American-led assault on the North African coast at various points between Casablanca and Tunis while, simultaneously, Montgomery would drive Rommel back deep into Libya before Hitler had a chance to reinforce the Panzer Army from the other side of the Mediterranean. The Allies would thus acquire complete control of the entire North African littoral, the island fortress of Malta would be saved, and, in turn, the ‘soft underbelly’ of Italy would be fatally exposed to an Anglo-American assault. As he had persuaded Roosevelt and advised Stalin, the ‘true’ second front would have been established in North Africa rather than in Europe. All this was suddenly in jeopardy.

In Churchill’s absence, the initial character and scope of Torch had been scaled down by the Americans to such a degree as to convince the British that Washington had lost its stomach for a venture about which the American Chiefs had always been dubious. The competing demands from the commander-in-chief of the US Navy, Admiral King, for ships, men and weapons to sustain the American commitment in the Pacific had accelerated Washington’s drift away from Churchill’s ‘Europe First’ strategy, to which he had assumed the White House was now fully committed.

To complicate matters further, the British were fearful that, under pressure from Hitler, General Franco – who was ostensibly a non-belligerent bystander – might soon allow the Wehrmacht to cross Spain to seize Gibraltar, and thereby control the Western Mediterranean; even worse, were he to detect that the advantage in North Africa was slipping away from the Allies, the Spanish dictator might even decide to throw in his lot with Hitler and enter the war on the Axis side. The most effective way both to convince Franco otherwise and to persuade the Vichy French in North Africa to switch their allegiance from the Axis to the Allies was to deploy enough force to demonstrate that the most powerful nation in the world as well as the British really meant business. Unless Torch were to involve the use of overwhelming force it would swiftly become a damp squib – with incalculable consequences for both the Middle East and the Empire.

London’s deepening frustration was summed up by Kennedy in a note for Brooke which he wrote the day before the CIGS and Churchill arrived back in London on 25 August. ‘The whole operation is at best extremely hazardous,’ he wrote. ‘The only hope of success is if we and the Americans put our whole effort into it. It is almost incredible that their share of the operations should be so weak and half-hearted.’ Torch, he warned, was at risk of becoming ‘a tremendous disaster’.

The following day, Kennedy was summoned to Number 10 for an 11 a.m. meeting with Churchill, who was in bed, ‘wearing The Dressing Gown; a half-smoked cigar was in his mouth, and a glass of water and some papers on the table beside him’. When he asked for a progress report on Torch, Kennedy did not spare him: three times as many troops were required as had been allocated, the American contribution was quite inadequate, and their reluctance to do more was, he judged, ‘a sign that our strategic policies were diverging’.

Much disconcerted, Churchill immediately cabled Roosevelt, urging that the two of them should instruct Eisenhower (who sympathised with the British perspective) to launch Torch on 14 October. Only by forcing the issue in this way, he intimated, would it be possible to ensure that the first Allied operation of the war – which he cunningly and shamelessly described as ‘your great strategic conception’ – would be a ‘decisive success’. At the end of a long and detailed elaboration of the means to this end, he concluded, ‘I feel that a note must be struck now of irrevocable decision and superhuman energy to execute it.’

No sooner had Churchill despatched this rallying cry than the ‘bombshell’ from Washington arrived on his desk. It took the form of a memorandum from the American Joint Chiefs, which – he was soon to inform Roosevelt – ‘profoundly disconcerted’ the British government. Their message – though implicit – was straightforward: they were unwilling to put their troops at great risk in the Mediterranean by launching a major assault on Algiers – which Churchill and his advisors regarded as an essential precondition for defeating the Germans in North Africa. By limiting the operation to a landing at the port of Oran in western Algeria and the city of Casablanca on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, as the Americans had proposed, would, Churchill informed the President, be ‘making the enemy a present not only of Tunis but of Algiers … We are all convinced that Algiers is the key to the whole operation.

’Roosevelt’s response, which arrived three days later, was far less emollient than the Prime Minister might have hoped. The President not only made it clear that he differed with the Prime Minister on matters of strategic substance but he also raised a new issue which was bound to aggravate Churchill’s distress. Though the Americans shared the British concern that Franco might soon allow the panzers to transit Spain en route to North Africa, Roosevelt was more worried about the impact of the landings upon the Vichy French in North Africa, who were firmly entrenched in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia with 125,000 troops that were still under the tutelage of the Nazis.

Judging the British to be loathed by the Vichy French to such a degree that, in Andrew Roberts’s phrase, ‘the Stars and Stripes might be welcomed in North Africa whereas the Union Jack would be fired on’, the President was blunt:

“I feel very strongly that the initial attacks must be made by an exclusively American ground force. The operation should be undertaken on the assumption that the French will offer less resistance to us than they will to the British. I would even go so far as to say I am reasonably sure a simultaneous landing by British and Americans [who had maintained diplomatic relations with Vichy France] would result in full resistance by all French in Africa, whereas an initial American landing without British ground forces offers a real chance that there would be no French resistance, or only a token resistance.”

The only crumb of comfort for Churchill in Roosevelt’s disagreeable message was that he similarly hoped that the target date for the landings could still be met, though, somewhat reprovingly, he commented that the precise timing was not for either of them to determine but for the commander-in-chief, General Eisenhower.

So far from resolving the disagreements between the British and Americans, this initial exchange led to a to-and-fro of toughly worded cables in which neither held back from expressing their discomfort with the other’s position; their correspondence was peppered with such phrases as ‘This sudden abandonment of the plan on which we have hitherto been working will certainly cause grievous delay’ (Churchill, 1 September), or ‘I feel that the operation as herein outlined is as far as I can go towards meeting your views’ (Roosevelt, 3 September). The tension between the two leaders was a reflection not only of the competing pressures on them but also from their differing perspectives, the fact that Torch was of surpassing importance for them both.

The stakes could hardly have been higher. Torch’s commander-in-chief, General Eisenhower, was caught between his loyalty to his superiors in Washington and his sympathy for the British. ‘We are undertaking something of a quite desperate nature and which depends only in minor degree upon the professional preparations we can make or upon the wisdom of our military decisions,’ Eisenhower noted in his diary. ‘In a way it is like the return of Napoleon from Elba – if the guess as to psychological reaction is correct, we may gain a great advantage; if the guess is wrong, it would be almost as certain that we would gain nothing and lose a lot.’

Torch could easily have collapsed under the weight of the differing priorities and the self-regard by which both nations were animated; the tone of the correspondence, on both sides, contained more than a hint of resentful national pride. Churchill, for whom this episode marked the first unambiguous demonstration of the fact that he was now the junior partner in a grand alliance, was both bruised and dismayed by the unexpected turn of events. On 4 September he could not resist drafting a long letter to Harry Hopkins, his own good friend and the President’s closest confidant, complaining that he was ‘deeply perturbed’ by the way Torch was being ‘knocked about, and above all at the needless delays which add so much to our joint troubles’.

In the end, the letter was never sent. On the same day, a cable arrived from Roosevelt in which he avowed ‘we are getting very close together’. Notwithstanding his senior status in the Alliance, he negotiated a way through the strategic thickets which threatened to jeopardise the project by demonstrating that readiness to compromise which marked him out as a great statesman: the Americans would, after all, land at Algiers alongside the British as well as at Oran and Casablanca. Churchill was relieved and gratified. ‘We agree,’ he replied on 5 September, even suggesting that the British Army’s ‘highly trained’ troops under Eisenhower’s command could disguise themselves from the Vichy French by wearing US Army uniforms. ‘They will be proud to do so,’ he avowed. When he heard this, Roosevelt cabled simply ‘Hurrah’ and Churchill responded ‘O.K., full blast.’

But, as though to confirm Britain’s diminished authority, the Prime Minister wrote once again to Roosevelt a few days later, in cunningly submissive terms. ‘In the whole of Torch, military and political, I consider myself your lieutenant, asking only to put my view-point plainly before you … We British will come in only as and when you judge expedient. This is an American enterprise, in which we are your helpmates.’

In this, Churchill demonstrated a high degree of diplomatic acumen. Though he never forgot that Torch was his idea, or that it was inextricably connected to his imperial vision for the Middle East, and ultimately to victory in Europe, he astutely avoided claiming credit publicly for the first Anglo-American military operation of the Second World War. With Torch now reignited and Rommel repulsed at Alam el Halfa, the Prime Minister had grounds for cautious satisfaction: his grand plan for victory in North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean showed every sign of moving towards fruition. Instead he was consumed by anxiety and gloom. At home he was beset on all sides by criticism of his leadership. Some agitated for him to surrender his role as Minister of Defence. Others complained that the public was infected by war weariness and low morale. Commentators in the press recalled the succession of military disasters over which he had presided – in the desert, in Greece and Crete, Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, Tobruk and latterly (on 19 August) the fiasco of the Dieppe raid, during which, in the space of a few hours, more than three-fifths of the Canadian Second Infantry Division had been killed, wounded, or captured. The blame for this was generally laid firmly on the Prime Minister’s shoulders. Even some of his previously loyal lieutenants began to murmur against him. To make matters worse, Sir Stafford Cripps, a lynchpin of the War Cabinet, chose this moment to proffer his resignation. Knowing that Cripps’s apparent loyalty concealed the ambitions of an arch rival for the highest office, Churchill feared that his departure would precipitate a political crisis. Using all the guile at his command, the Prime Minister managed to persuade him – in the national interest, of course – to stay his hand.

Under these pressures, even Churchill’s magnificent self-belief was dented and self-pity sometimes seeped to the surface. After a meeting with him on 24 September, Brooke described his ‘very pathetic’ mood. When the gloom descended on him, according to General Alan Brooke , Imperial Chief of Staff , he lamented that ‘he was the only one trying to win the war, that he was the only one who produced any ideas, that he was quite alone in all his attempts, no-one supported him … all we did was provide and plan difficulties … Frequently in this oration he worked himself up into such a state from the woeful picture he had painted, that tears streamed down his face!’ Later, Churchill himself wrote, theatrically, of this ‘bleak lull’ when he might have been dismissed from office and thus have vanished from the scene, ‘with a load of calamity on my shoulders’ while ‘the harvest, at last to be reaped, would have been ascribed to my belated disappearance’. As it turned out, his critics were to be denied that satisfaction and his own fortunes were about to take a turn for the better.

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Destiny in Desert , The Road to Alamein - Jonathan Dimbleby

In the Western Desert Montgomery was preparing for battle in his own measured way. He was not a man to be hurried. Dogged and determined, he had a clear sense of what would be required before taking the offensive against Rommel. ‘I would concentrate on three essentials: leadership, equipment, and training … We had just won a decisive victory, but it had been a static battle: I was not prepared to launch the troops in an all-out offensive without intensive prior training.’ Although he wrote in self-congratulatory terms about the action at Alam el Halfa – or the ‘Battle of Alamein’ as he occasionally referred to it – claiming that ‘there was no difficulty in seeing [Rommel] off’, the victory had not been as easily achieved as he liked to boast. In particular, the shambles of Operation Beresford – in which one British brigade alone suffered more than 700 casualties within the space of twenty-four hours – contributed more than 1,000 of the 1,750 who were killed, wounded or captured in the course of the five-day action. This rate of attrition not only provided salutary testimony to the human cost of offensive warfare but served warning about the soaring rate of casualties which might be expected in the large-scale offensive for which the Eighth Army was now training in earnest.

Montgomery’s resolve was not in doubt. Fanatically driven, obsessively focussed, clinically organised and pathologically egotistical, he was not a clubbable colleague. But he knew what he wanted from the Eighth Army and he would not rest until he got it. Every soldier under his command, from generals to corporals, would rehearse rigorously and repeatedly until the general was satisfied they were ready for the offensive. There was little respite. Under the previous regime, an Australian infantryman recalled wryly, ‘When troops usually went out of the line to a “rest area” … you either dug holes all day and guarded dumps all night or you trained all day and guarded dumps all night.’ By contrast, under Montgomery, ‘You trained all day and then you trained all night. Not every day and every night – but almost.’ The Eighth Army was susceptible to neither blandishments nor oaths, but Montgomery offered something else: the icy precision of an outsider who had arrived to create order, discipline and certainty. In this respect, an otherwise stern critic, Correlli Barnett, likened him admiringly to ‘Florence Nightingale putting a hospital in order’.

He was brutal with those he regarded as incompetent or who failed to meet his exacting standards. (“brutal” in Western Standarts not Eastern. In Red Army or Japanese standarts , Monty could be regarded as even handed) His reprimands were severe: he dismissed platoons of brigadiers and unit commanders with cavalier disdain for their feelings and even the most senior officers were despatched with a rare disregard for their self-esteem. After Alam el Halfa, General Ramsden, who had been appointed to command 30th Corps by Auchinleck, asked to take four days’ leave in Cairo. Montgomery genially gave his consent. Thirty-six hours later, he was summoned back urgently to Eighth Army headquarters at Borg el Arab. Supposing that the offensive must be imminent, he went to see Montgomery, who abruptly informed him that he was to be replaced by General Sir Oliver Leese. When Ramsden remonstrated, Montgomery said coldly, ‘This is war – this is war’, adding for good measure, ‘You’re not exactly on the crest of a wave, Ramsden.

’Montgomery’s charmless manner won him few friends but his allies in the Eighth Army – those who admired his clarity of purpose and who trusted his conviction – were numerous. That he not only knew his own mind but made sure that others knew it as well inspired confidence. His sympathetic biographer, Nigel Hamilton, has conceded that Montgomery was ‘braggartly, vain, rude, dogmatic, and impossibly self-righteous’ but likened him to the leader of an ‘adopted tribe’ providing not only leadership, but reassurance, confidence, and protection. Somewhat less persuasively, Hamilton attributed his acquisition of this status to the fact that the Eighth Army was ‘jaded, bewildered’ and ‘baffled’ by defeat.

Far more corrosive were the rivalries and envies which had long beset the upper echelons and had seeped through to the rank and file of an army drawn from so many diverse sources. These were too deeply embedded to be expunged overnight but Montgomery at least gave the impression that, under his leadership, victory would be theirs so long as they were willing to follow his lead and obey his orders. He was helped in this by the fact that, unlike so many other British officers, he plainly did not derive his authority from his membership of the British upper classes. Fox-hunting metaphors were alien to him (though he would repeatedly promise to ‘hit the enemy for six’), likewise the snobberies of the cavalry officers’ mess or the Guard’s Club, in which gentlemen had inherited a place at the top of a table to which only the vulgar would even refer. So far from belonging to this culture, Montgomery was an outsider who had imposed himself upon his peers – many of whom disdained him – by the force of his disagreeable but magnetic personality. During the Battle of Alam el Halfa he had demonstrated a steely confidence which impressed even those who regarded him as an insufferable arriviste. But the real test of his leadership was yet to come.

In a prescient note, while the good news about Alam el Halfa was still being digested in London, Brooke wrote on 8 September, ‘My next trouble will now be to stop Winston from fussing Alex and Monty and egging them on to attack before they are ready. It is a regular disease that he suffers from, this frightful impatience to get an attack launched.’ As Brooke knew only too well, the Prime Minister was driven by both political and strategic demons. On 9 August, in a note to the First Sea Lord, pressing him to accelerate the delivery of the Sherman tanks which had been promised by America after the fall of Tobruk and were now on their way to Alexandria, Churchill wrote of ‘the immense importance of beating Rommel as a prelude to Torch’. In part, the ‘immense importance’ he ascribed to this pre-emptive victory sprang from the plausible belief that if the Panzer Army were to be destroyed at El Alamein, victory in Operation Torch would be far easier to accomplish. But there was another factor. Shorn of any diplomatic niceties, Churchill was desperate to secure the public triumph of a British victory over Germany which would otherwise be submerged by the even greater drama of the first Allied venture of the war, when the spotlight would inevitably be on the Americans.

But this political purpose was reinforced by a pressing strategic anxiety. Warned by the Turkish ambassador that Ankara was losing ‘the will-power to resist’ the diplomatic pressure coming from Berlin following Hitler’s seizure of Sevastopol from the Red Army in July, Churchill sought urgently to stiffen Turkey’s resolve. On 28 August he therefore instructed the Chiefs of Staff to make provision for more ‘war material’ to be despatched from Egypt to Turkey by the end of October. However, he reminded them, the delivery of these tanks and guns by this date hung ‘on the assumption of definite success in the Western Desert by the middle of October’.

For all these reasons, Churchill’s impatience knew few bounds. Having instructed Alexander on his appointment to ‘destroy’ the Panzer Army ‘at the earliest opportunity’, he now cabled his commander-in-chief to find out when the offensive was expected to begin. ‘It would be a help to me to know about when you think it will come off,’ he wrote, admonishing, ‘I had hoped to have heard from you before.’ Ignoring that rebuke, Alexander replied patiently but firmly, to explain that, though Rommel’s army had been ‘seriously weakened’ at Alam el Halfa, Montgomery’s attack was to be somewhat delayed because of it.

By this time, the Eighth Army commander had come to the view that Operation Lightfoot, as he had codenamed the opening phase of the final Battle of El Alamein, could not proceed until the second half of October – more than a month later than Auchinleck had planned. This was for several sound reasons: the 250 Sherman tanks, which had only just reached Egypt, were not yet readied for the particular hazards of desert warfare; the 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions required more training; and the final preparations for an offensive by almost 200,000 troops, many of whom had only just arrived in the country, could not possibly be completed before the middle of October at the earliest.

The commander of an Eighth Army which had already suffered 80,000 casualties since its formation did not intend to risk unnecessary bloodshed on account of incompetent leadership and inadequate training. He could issue all manner of morale-raising instructions – ‘Morale is the big thing in war. We must raise the morale of our soldiers to the highest pitch. They must enter this battle with their tails high in the air and the will to win made’ he liked to say – but without more preparation for the battle ahead, all the morale in the world would be in vain. Montgomery would not allow himself to be harried into a premature offensive.

For his part, Churchill’s impatience to pre-empt Torch with a British victory in the desert, was intensified by Malta’s predicament; a lynchpin of Britain’s military operations in the Mediterranean and North Africa, the garrison was once again running low on vital provisions. On 17 September, chafing for action, the Prime Minister cabled Alexander once again. ‘I am anxiously awaiting some account of your intentions. My understanding with you was the fourth week in September. Since then you have stated that the recent battle, which greatly weakened the enemy, has caused delay in regrouping etc…. I must know which week it falls in, otherwise I cannot form the necessary judgements affecting the general war.’Alexander, who was a diplomat as much as a soldier, did not reply at once but instead flew up to Eighth Army headquarters to consult Montgomery. According to Montgomery’s Chief of Staff, ‘Freddy’ de Guingand, who took notes at their meeting, Montgomery was swiftly to the point. ‘I won’t do it in September,’ he told his commander-in-chief, ‘But if I do it in October it’ll be a victory.’ Alexander asked, ‘Well, what shall I say to him?’ At this, Montgomery took de Guingand’s notepad and wrote the message he wished his commander-in-chief to despatch to London. Out of de Guingand’s earshot, he told Alexander that if Churchill were to insist on a September attack, ‘they would have to get someone else to do it’. Alexander duly informed London that it was ‘essential’ for the attack to be launched at night ‘in the full moon period’; for this reason it would be wrong to start the offensive until ‘minus 13 of Torch’, which was by now scheduled for 4 November.

Churchill bowed to the inevitable. ‘We are in your hands, and of course a victorious battle makes amends for much delay,’ he wrote grudgingly on 23 September, before adding with rather more grace, ‘Whatever happens we shall back you up and see you through.’ By now Montgomery had settled on a date for the attack. It was timed to begin in the late evening of 23 October, when, as so often at crucial moments in this conflict, the desert would be helpfully illuminated by a full moon.

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