Operation Game Birds

This was a British counterattack in the Battle of Alam el Halfa (31 August 1942).

The complete battle lasted from 30 August to 5 September 1942 in the Western Desert to the south of El Alamein and close to the border between Egypt and Libya. Here Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s German-Italian Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ tried to envelop Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery’s 8th Army in what, it later emerged, was the last major Axis offensive of the Western Desert campaign. Rommel’s intention was to defeat the British-led forces before Allied reinforcements made an Axis victory in Africa impossible.

Montgomery, who had been forewarned of Rommel’s intentions by ‘Ultra’ intelligence, deliberately left a gap in the southern sector of the front, knowing that Rommel planned to attack there, and deployed the bulk of his armour and artillery around Alam el Halfa ridge, some 20 miles (32 km) behind the front. In a new tactic, the British armour was used in the anti-tank role, the tanks remaining in position on the ridge and refusing to sortie and be destroyed, as had been the case in previous classes between British and German armour.

With his supply situation precarious and attacks on the ridge failing, Rommel ordered a withdrawal, but Montgomery did not exploit his defensive victory, deciding instead to consolidate his forces for ‘Lightfoot’, otherwise the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division launched an abortive attack on Italian positions, however, and sustained major losses.

Unaware of ‘Ultra’, Rommel later claimed that it was British air superiority which had played the decisive factor in winning the battle, and that these damaging attacks had impacted heavily on the Axis motorised forces and forced him to break off his offensive. The price of the defeat was not just a tactical defeat and retreat for the Axis forces, for with his failure in the Battle of Alam el Halfa Rommel was deprived not only of the operational initiative but also lost the operational and tactical ability to defend the German base in Africa. This meant that the Axis strategic aims in the North African theatre were no longer possible.

After Rommel’s failed attempt to break through during the 1st Battle of Alamein between 1 and 27 July 1942, and the subsequent counter-operations by the 8th Army then commanded by General Sir Claude Auchinleck, during July 1942, each side had reached the point of total exhaustion, dug in and sought to rebuild its strength. At El Alamein, Rommel’s supply position was precarious, for his lines of communications were very extended: the main supply ports of Benghazi and Tobruk were 800 miles (1290 km) and 400 miles (645 km) from the front respectively, while Tripoli was some 1,200 miles (1930 km) away and had ceased to be of any real utility.

Furthermore, the original Axis plan for the Battle of Gazala between 26 May and 21 June 1942 had been to pause for six weeks on the Egyptian frontier after the capture of Tobruk between 20 and 21 June 1942 to regroup and refit. Rommel had decided to maintain his momentum to prevent the 8th Army from organising new defences, however, and therefore pursued the British-led forces back to the east with the objective of taking Alexandria and Cairo, and possibly the Suez Canal. The result of Rommel’s typical impetuosity was that the Axis air forces initially allocated to take part in the Italian and German air assault on Malta were redirected to join the improvised pursuit into Egypt. As a consequence, the British were able to rebuild their strength to attack Axis shipping carrying supplies to North Africa, resulting in heavy Axis losses at sea. At the end of August Rommel’s forces, although reinforced by fresh troops flown in from Crete, were short of key supplies, most especially ammunition and petrol.

General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, who replaced Auchinleck as the commander-in-chief of the British land forces in the Middle East on 15 August 1942, increasingly enjoyed the benefits ever-shortening distances between his supply bases and ports in Egypt and the front line in eastern Libya. Nevertheless, the British-led forces’ lines of communication with the UK, the empire and commonwealth, and the USA were very long: this meant that there was a significant interval between the identification of requirements and the arrival of the relevant equipment. Even so, by the summer of 1942 large quantities of modern equipment were arriving, notably Sherman medium tanks from the USA and 6-pdr anti-tank guns from the UK, allowing the replacement of older equipment such as obsolescent British and US tanks and the obsolete British 2-pdr anti-tank gun. Moreover, the British-led air forces were also becoming increasingly capable, and were now supported by newly arrived US squadrons.

German intelligence had warned Rommel of the arrival of a major Allied convoy bringing new vehicles for the Allies in Egypt. Realising that time was against him, and that the arrival of reinforcements for the British would tilt the balance in their favour, Rommel decided to attack, and informed the Italian Comando Supremo in Rome that he would need 6,000 tons of fuel and 2,500 tons of ammunition before the planned start date at the end of the month, but by 29 August more than half of the ships sent had been sunk and only 1,500 tons of fuel had reached Tobruk. Rommel could not postpone the attack because of the 8th Army’s growing strength and so decided to take a chance on gaining a quick success.

At the start of the battle, after Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, commander of Luftflotte II and the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, had agreed to lend some of the Luftwaffe’s fuel stock, Rommel had enough fuel for 150 miles (240 km) for each front-line vehicle and 250 miles (400 km) for every other vehicle.

The El Alamein sector did not offer a front as wide as most previous Western Desert battles, and any armoured thrust would have to pass between the sea to the north and the tank-impenetrable Qattara Depression to the south. The British defences were quite strong, but Rommel believed they had a weak point in the southern sector where, between Deir el Munassib and Qaret el Himeimat, it was lightly held and, Rommel believed, only lightly protected by minefields.

In the north, therefore, Rommel grouped two Italian formations, Generale di Brigata Giorgio Masina’s 102nd Divisione motorizzata ‘Trento’ and Generale di Divisione Alessandro Gloria’s 25th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Bologna’, supported by the German troops of Generalmajor Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke’s Fallschirmjägerbrigade ‘Ramcke’ and Generalleutnant Carl-Hans Lungerhausen’s 164th leichte Afrikadivision, to undertake a frontal demonstration in an attempt to pin the British defenders in place while Rommel’s main attack cut through the southern sector and then turned north in a sharp hooking movement into the 8th Army’s rear areas and lines of communication. It was hoped that after this, most of the British-led formations would be cut off and destroyed. With characteristic optimism, Rommel had as his final goal the occupation of Egypt, and in particular the Suez Canal.

This main part of the offensive was to be led by his German formations, namely Generalleutnant Gustav von Vaerst’s 15th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Georg von Bismarck’s 21st Panzerdivision, accompanied by Generalmajor Ulrich Kleemann’s 90th Afrikadivision. To cover the flanks, Rommel had the three divisions of Generale di Corpo d’Armata Giuseppe de Stefanis’s Italian XX Corps (Generale di Divisione Francesco Arena’s 132nd Divisione corazzata ‘Ariete’, Generale di Divisione Gervasio Bitossi’s 133rd Divisione corazzata ‘Littorio’ and Generale di Divisione Enrico Frattini’s 185th Divisione paracadutista ‘Folgore’).

‘Ultra’ intelligence had provided advance information about the Axis offensive, and Auchinleck had set out the basic defensive plan but had included a number of contingency plans for defensive works around Alexandria and Cairo in case Axis armour broke through. After visiting the front line, Montgomery ordered that these contingency plans be destroyed and emphasised his intention to hold at El Alamein at all costs. In the northern sector (from just south of Ruweisat ridge to the coast and deployed behind minefields) Lieutenant General W. H. C. Ramsden’s XXX Corps comprised Major General Sir Leslie Morshead’s Australian 9th Division, Major General D. H. Pienaar’s South African 1st Division and Major General H. R. Briggs’s Indian 5th Division, with Brigadier G. W. Richards’s British 23rd Armoured Brigade in reserve.

The New Zealand 2nd Division was deployed on a 5-mile (8-km) sector of the front to the south of the Ruweisat ridge. This defensive area was known as the ‘New Zealand Box’ and formed the northern end of the southern sector of the 8th Army’s front, which was allocated to Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s XIII Corps. Accepting that the featureless southern sector would be very difficult to defend against a determined armoured attack, Montgomery elected to provide the 12-mile (19-km) front from the New Zealand box to Qaret el Himeimat on the edge of the Qattara Depression with only a light defence with the specific intention of enticing Rommel to attack at this point. This gap would be mined and wired, while Brigadier M. D. Erskine’s 7th Motor Brigade Group and Brigadier W. G. Carr’s 4th Armoured Brigade Group of Major General J. M. L. Renton’s 7th Armoured Division would cover the minefields, but withdraw when necessary. The ‘New Zealand Box’ thus formed the junction of the main defences with its hinge on the higher ground at Alam Nayil.

Montgomery’s plan was that the attack would meet his army’s primary defensive position after it swung north and approached the Alam El Halfa ridge, well in the rear of the 8th Army’s front. Here Montgomery chose to entrench the bulk of his heavy and medium tanks (concentrated in Brigadier G. P. B. Roberts’s British 22nd Armoured Brigade) and anti-tank units and await the Axis attack. Behind the British armour, on the high ground to the north-east, would be two brigades of Major General I. T. P. Hughes’s 44th Division and concentrations of divisional and corps artillery. Major General A. H. Gatehouse’s 10th Armoured Division was refitting in the Nile delta with the US M3 medium tank, known to the British as the General Grant, with an effective 75-mm (2.95-in) main gun, and would reinforce the Alam El Halfa position when available. Most of Brigadier E. C. N. Custance’s 8th Armoured Brigade of this division arrived by 30 August and took position to manoeuvre left of the 22nd Armoured Brigade and on the flank of the Axis forces’ expected advance.

Once Montgomery was confident of Rommel’s dispositions after their initial advance, he released the 23rd Armoured Brigade from XXX Corps reserve at the eastern end of Ruweisat Ridge to XIII Corps, under command of the 10th Armoured Division, and by 13.00 on 31 August the brigade had moved 100 Valentine tanks to fill the gap between the 22nd Armoured Brigade and the New Zealand 2nd Brigade.

The Axis attack was committed during the night of 30 August to take advantage of a full moon. From the start things went wrong for Rommel. RAF aircraft spotted the Axis vehicle concentrations and unleashed several air attacks on them, with Fairey Albacore bombers of the Royal Navy dropping flares to illuminate targets for Vickers Wellington medium bombers and the artillery. The British minefields were soon found to be deep rather than thin.

The British units covering the minefields were the two main elements of the 7th Armoured Division (Brigadier T. J. B. Bosville’s 7th Motor Brigade and the 4th Armoured Brigade) with instructions to inflict maximum casualties before retiring. This the two brigades achieved, and the Axis losses began to rise. They included Generalleutnant Walter Nehring, commander of the Deutsches Afrikakorps, who was wounded in an air raid, and von Bismarck, commander of the 21st Panzerdivision, who killed by a mortar bomb. Despite these difficulties, Rommel’s forces had pushed their way through the minefields by 12.00 on the following day, had wheeled left and were drawn up ready to make the main attack originally scheduled for 06.00.

However, the fact that their attack had been slowed had by now combined with the continued harassing flank attacks by the 7th Armoured Division to compel the Axis forces to turn to the north and thus into Montgomery’s flank somewhat farther to the west than originally planned, and therefore directly toward the prepared defences on Alam el Halfa ridge. At 13.00 the 15th Panzerdivision set off, followed one hour later by the 21st Panzerdivision.

The British-led forces holding the ridge were the 22nd Armoured Brigade with 92 General Grant medium tanks and 74 light tanks, supported by anti-tank units with 6-pdr guns and the artillery of the British 44th and New Zealand 2nd Divisions. As the Panzer divisions approached the ridge, their PzKpfw IVF2 tanks opened fire at long range and destroyed several British tanks. The General Grant tanks were handicapped by the fact that their main guns were fitted in a hull sponson rather than the turret, which prevented them from engaging the Axis armour from a hull-down position, and also limited their traverse angle. However, as it came into range, the Axis armour was exposed to the brigade’s fire and began to take substantial losses. An attempt to outflank the British was thwarted by anti-tank guns, and with night beginning to fall and fuel running short because of the delays and heavy fuel consumption as a result of the bad going, von Vaerst, now commanding the Deutsches Afrikakorps, ordered his armour to pull back. During this engagement, the Germans lost 22 tanks and the British 21.

Night brought no respite for the Axis forces, as the Albacore single-engined biplane and Wellington twin-engined monoplane bombers returned to the attack, concentrating on the Axis supply lines. This added to Rommel’s logistic difficulties, already acute as a result of the fact that the Allies had sunk more than half of the 5,000 tons of petrol promised to him by Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator. On the next day, 1 September, the 21st Panzerdivision was therefore inactive, probably because of fuel shortages, and operations were limited to an attack by the 15th Panzerdivision toward the eastern flank of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. This attack started at dawn but was quickly stopped by a flank attack delivered by the 8th Armoured Brigade. The Germans suffered little, as the British were under orders to spare their tanks for the coming offensive, but they could make no headway and were heavily shelled.

Meanwhile the 132nd Divisione corazzata and 133rd Divisione corazzata had moved up on the left of the Deutsches Afrikakorps and 90th Afrikadivision, and elements of the X Corps had drawn up to face the southern flank of the New Zealand box. Air raids continued throughout the day and night, and on the morning of 2 September Rommel, realising his offensive had failed and that staying in the salient his forces had created would only add to his losses, decided to withdraw and, in a message to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, laid the blame for his decision on his forces’ lack of fuel, Allied air superiority and the loss of the element of surprise.

On 2 September the situation continued to deteriorate for the Axis forces. Armoured cars of the 4th/8th Hussars (of the 4th Armoured Brigade) broke into the Axis supply echelons near Himeimat and attacked a group of 300 lorries, destroying 57 of them. As a result, Italian armoured units had to be moved to protect the supply lines and prevent further attacks. Neither side was particularly active on 2 September, the exception being Air Vice Marshal A. Coningham’s Desert Air Force, which flew 167 bomber and 501 fighter sorties.

During the day Montgomery realised that the Deutsches Afrikakorps was about to withdraw, and quickly devised offensive plans for the 7th Armoured Division and New Zealand 2nd Division, though still with the warning that they were not to incur losses that would jeopardise further offensives. While the 7th Armoured Division’s operations were therefore limited to harassment raids, the New Zealand 2nd Infantry division’s attack was more serious. It involved Brigadier J. Hargest’s experienced New Zealand 5th Brigade and Brigadier C. B. Robertson’s inexperienced British 132nd Brigade (under command from the 44th Division), with armoured support, to attack southwards across the supply lines of the Deutsches Afrikakorps and isolate it east of the Allied lines.

This ‘Beresford’ operation began at 22.30 on 3 September. The assault by the New Zealand 5th Brigade on the left inflicted heavy losses on the Italian defenders, and the New Zealanders beat off Axis counterattacks the next morning. But the attack by the 132nd Brigade was a disaster. The brigade was one hour late arriving at its start line, by which time the Axis forces had been thoroughly roused by diversionary raids by Brigadier G. H. Clifton’s New Zealand 6th Brigade on the right flank. Robertson was wounded and Clifton captured. The Valentine tanks of the 46th Royal Tank Regiment became lost in the darkness and entered a minefield, where 12 of them were put out of action. The 90th Afrikadivision dealt fiercely with the 132nd Brigade, which suffered 697 casualties in addition to the 275 casualties suffered by the New Zealanders, without being able to prevent the retirement of Rommel’s forces.

The vigour of the Axis defence suggested to Freyberg, the New Zealand divisional commander, that a renewed attack was unlikely to succeed. He therefore advised that the troops should be withdrawn from their very exposed positions and the operation called off. Montgomery and Horrocks agreed, and the troops were withdrawn on the night of 4 September. After failure against the 164th leichte Afrikadivision and 185th Divisione paracadutista with elements of the 132nd Divisione corazzata covering the German withdrawal, Montgomery decided to refrain from further attacks. The Deutsches Afrikakorps was therefore able to pull back, though not without being further harried by the Desert Air Force, which flew 957 sorties in 24 hours.

On 5 September the Axis units were back almost on their starting positions and the battle was over.

During the Battle of Alam el Halfa the British-led forces had suffered 1,750 casualties killed, wounded and captured, compared with a figure of 2,930 for the Axis forces. The Allies lost more tanks than the Axis (68 to 49), but for the first time in this campaign there was no great disproportion in tank losses. Also the constant harassment by the RAF cost the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ 400 transport vehicles. Other losses were in the air (67 British and commonwealth to 36 Axis) and artillery (60 Axis pieces lost).

This was the last major offensive undertaken by the Axis forces in North Africa, and ultimately it was the superior firepower of the British and commonwealth forces, together with their mastery of the skies, that brought them victory over an opponent whose ability to fight effectively had been hamstrung by the Allied forces’ decimation of the Axis convoys trying to ferry fuel, ammunition and other vital supplies and equipment from Italy to North Africa.

Montgomery’s refusal to exploit his tactical victory allowed him to preserve his forces and build his logistics for the decisive 2nd Battle of El Alamein.