This was the British first phase of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein (23/26 October 1942).
As such, this first phase was the ‘dogfight’ element of a battle which in its entirety lasted from 23 October to 3 November 1942.
Following the 1st Battle of El Alamein (1/27 July 1942), in which the British forces had checked the advance of the Axis forces farther into Egypt, Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery assumed command of the 8th Army from General Sir Claude Auchinleck in August 1942. The detailed planning for the 2nd Battle of El Alamein was undertaken by Montgomery, on the basis of the concepts and forces initially created by Auchinleck, as the decisive stroke of what had hitherto been a see-saw east/west campaign along the coast of North Africa with the Axis forces under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel attempting to drive the British back to the Suez Canal and out of Egypt, and the British and commonwealth forces under a number of commanders fighting to push the German and Italian forces back to Tunisia and then out of North Africa altogether. Supplies and the length of each side’s lines of communication had played as decisive as part as tactical and operational expertise in this protracted campaign.
It was this double factor which set the scene for the 2nd Battle of El Alamein, for Rommel’s setback in the Battle of Alam Halfa (30 August/4 September 1942) had exhausted his men, drained his vehicle and tank strengths, and consumed almost all of the Axis forces’ available fuel supply. Thus Rommel ordered his Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’, redesignated as the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee on 1 October, to prepare defensive positions between El Alamein on the coast of the Mediterranean and Qaret el Himeimat on the northern side of the great Qattara Depression. The Axis front was protected by overlapping minefields, covered by artillery, while behind these minefields were the Axis infantry formations, and behind them the surviving Axis armour.
By this time all the Axis commanders and troops in North Africa were fully aware that the decisive point of the Axis effort in the Western Desert campaign was approaching rapidly, for the position was protected from outflanking movements in the north by the sea and by the depression in the south, and that defeat in a frontal assault launched by the 8th Army would result in total catastrophe as the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee lacked the vehicles and fuel for a rapid large-scale retreat.
On the other side of the front-line wire entanglements and minefields, Montgomery and his senior commanders also appreciated that the decisive moment was upon them, and that the British and commonwealth forces were well placed for the battle as they finally possessed men in adequate numbers, of the necessary quality, and in possession of the right matériel. This last included, most notably, the US M4 Sherman medium tank with its main turret in a top turet, which at last gave the British qualitative parity in armour with the German PzKpfw IV battle tank, and with its turret-mounted 75-mm (2.95-in) main gun was notably more capable in the anti-tank role than the preceding M3 Grant with its same-calibre main gun in a limited-traverse sponson.
After six weeks of gathering its strength and completing a programme of arduous physical and tactical training, the 8th Army was ready to go over to the offensive. Montgomery realised, of course, that the location of the Axis forces’ defensive position between the Mediterranean Sea and the Qattara Depression gave him no room for extensive manoeuvre in the opening phase of the battle, and therefore planned very accurately an assault in which the Axis forward minefields, wire and infantry strongpoints would be crushed by a monumental artillery barrage before the infantry moved forward to clear the way for a massive and highly concentrated armoured punch through the centre of the Axis position. It was this initial rupture of the Axis positions that was ‘Lightfoot’, which was then to be exploited to the west in ‘Supercharge’ (ii).
In overall terms Montgomery had three armoured divisions, three armoured brigades (including one of infantry tanks), seven infantry divisions, two Free French (‘Fighting French’) infantry brigade groups, and one Free Greek infantry brigade group.
Facing this strength, the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee had two German and two Italian armoured divisions, one German and one Italian motorised divisions, part of one German motorised division, four Italian infantry divisions, one Italian airborne division operating in the infantry role, and one German parachute brigade also operating in the infantry role.
In manpower and weapon terms, the British had 195,000 men to the Axis forces’ 116,000 men (including 50,000 Germans), 1,030 tanks to the Axis forces’ 547 tanks (including 249 German), 435 armoured cars to the Axis forces’ 192 armoured cars, between 892 and 908 pieces of artillery to the Axis forces’ 552 pieces of artillery, 1,451 anti-tank guns to the Axis forces’ 1,063 anti-tank guns, and 530 serviceable aircraft to the Axis forces’ 480 warplanes (150 of them German machines).
Montgomery’s largest formations within the 8th Army were Lieutenant General H. Lumsden’s X Corps, Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s XIII Corps and Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s XXX Corps.
Montgomery’s overall plan for the ‘Lightfoot’ battle foresaw a main attack to the north of the line and a secondary attack to the south, involving XXX and XIII Corps respectively, while X Corps was to exploit the success, all within the context of what Montgomery would be a 12-day battle in three stages: the break-in, the dogfight and the breaking of the Axis forces.
Thus Montgomery planned to drive two corridors through the Axis minefields in the north: one of these was to extend in a south-westerly direction through the sector of Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division in the direction of the centre of the Miteirya Ridge, and the other was to extend in a westerly direction, passing 2 miles (3.2 km) to the north of the Miteirya Ridge’s western end and straddling the sectors of Major General Sir Leslie J. Morshead’s Australian 9th Division and Major General D. N. Wimberley’s 51st Division. Armour would then pass through these corridors to emerge behind the Axis front line to tackle and defeat the Axis (especially German) armour. Diversionary attacks at the Ruweisat Ridge in the centre and also the south would meanwhile pin the rest of the Axis forces and thus prevent them from moving to the north, where the main battle was being fought.
For the first night of the offensive, Montgomery planned that the 51st Division, Australian 9th Division, New Zealand 2nd Division and Major General D. H. Pienaar’s South African 1st Division of Leese’s XXX Corps to advance on a 16-mile (25.75-km) front to the ‘Oxalic’ objective, in the process overrunning the Axis forces’ forward defences. Engineers would meanwhile clear and mark through the minefields the two lanes through which Major General H. R. Briggs’s 1st Armoured Division and Major General A. H. Gatehouse’s 10th Armoured Division of Lumsden’s X Corps would pass to reach the ‘Pierson’ line. Here they would rally and temporarily consolidate their position just to the west of the infantry positions, blocking any armoured interference in the infantry battle. They would then advance to the ‘Skinflint’ area in the depths of the Axis defences and astride the important Rahman lateral track to challenge the Axis armour. Meanwhile, the infantry battle would continue as the 8th Army’s foot soldiers ‘crumbled’ the three successive lines of the Axis forces’ deep defensive fortifications and destroyed any armour which attacked them.
With the failure of their offensive at Alam el Halfa, the Axis forces were now wholly on the defensive, but their losses had not been excessive. The German and Italian lines of communication and supply were decidedly over-stretched, however, and the Axis forces been relying on captured Allied supplies and equipment, but these had now all be consumed. Rommel had been advised by both the German and Italian staffs that his army could not be properly supplied so far to the east of the ports of Tripoli and Benghazi. Despite these warnings, Rommel had pressed ahead with his advance to El Alamein and as had been predicted, the German and Italian transport capability could not deliver the even the limited supplies which reached the North African ports after the loss of so many cross-Mediterranean ships to British Air and naval attack from Malta. On the other hand, the British and commonwealth forces were being resupplied with men and matériel from the UK, India, Australia and New Zealand, as well as with trucks and M4 Sherman medium tanks from the UK. All of these were important, but the delivery of useful numbers of M4 tanks was especially so as it gave the British armoured formations a technical equality with the Germans’ PzKpfw IV battle tank. Rommel continued to request increased shipment of armour, weapons, equipment, supplies and fuel, but at this decisive time in World War II the main focus of the German war machine was on the Eastern Front, where Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army was trapped in Stalingrad, and only very limited supplies reached North Africa.
Another Axis problem was the fact that Rommel was in poor health and, early in September, arrangements were made for him to return to Germany on sick leave and for General Georg Stumme to be transferred from the Eastern Front, where he was commander of the XL Panzerkorps, to take his place at the head of what was to become the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’. Before he departed on 23 September, Rommel organised the planned defence and wrote a long appreciation of the situation to the German high command, once again setting out the essential requirements of the German forces in North Africa.
Rommel fully appreciated that the British and commonwealth forces would soon be strong enough to launch a major offensive against his forces, and his only hope now was dependent on the German forces fighting in the Battle of Stalingrad to achieve a rapid defeat the Soviet forces and moving south through the Trans-Caucasus region to threaten Iran and the Middle East, whose oil was literally vital to the continued British war effort. Such an eventuality would make the British to detach major forces from the Western Desert front to reinforce their strength in Iran and the Middle East, leading to the postponement of any offensive against his army. Rommel hoped to exploit this delay to convince the German high command to reinforce his forces so that they could break through into Egypt, take the Suez Canal and surge through to link with the German armies battling their way through the southern USSR into the Middle East, there by bringing about the strategic situation in which the total defeat the British and commonwealth forces in North Africa and the Middle East could be achieved.
In the meantime, the Axis forces dug in and awaited for the eventual attack by the British and commonwealth forces or the defeat of the Soviet armies at Stalingrad. Rommel added depth to his defences by creating at least two belts of mines, about 3.1 miles (5 km) apart, and connecting these at intervals to create defensive ‘boxes’ designed to restrict penetrations to the west and also to deprive the British armour with manoeuvring space. The front face of each box was lightly held by battle outposts, and the rest of the box was unoccupied but sowed with mines and explosive traps and covered by enfilading fire. These boxes became known as ‘devil’s gardens’. The main defensive positions were built to a depth of at least 1.25 miles (2 km) behind the second mine belt. The Axis forces laid some 500,000 mines, mostly of them Teller anti-tank mines with smaller numbers of anti-personnel mines such as the S-mine: many of the mines were British, and had been captured at Tobruk. In order to lure opposing vehicles into the minefields, the Italians developed the neat ruse of dragging a simple device (an axle and two tyred wheels) through the minefields using a long rope to create what appeared to be well-used and therefore safe tracks.
Under the command of Rommel, and in Rommel’s early absence Stumme, the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee had two leichte Afrikadivisionen and one parachute brigade, the Deutsche Afrikakorps of two Panzer divisions, and part of Mareschiallo d’Italia Ettore Bastico’s Esercito italiano in Africa with Generale di Corpo d’Armata Edoardo Nebba’s X Corps under the temporary command of Generale di Divisione Enrico Frattini until 26 October with two infantry and one airborne divisions, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Giuseppe di Stefanis’s XX Motorised Corps with two armoured and one motorised divisions, and Generale di Corpo d’Armata Enea Navarini’s XXI Corps with single infantry and motorised divisions.
Rommel was concerned to make it impossible for the British armour break out into open terrain, for he possessed neither the strength of numbers nor the fuel to match the British armour in a battle of manoeuvre. He had therefore to try to restrict the battle to his defended zones and counter any breakthrough both quickly and vigorously. Rommel consequently strengthened his forward lines by alternating German and Italian infantry formations. Because the Allied deception measures of ‘Bertram’ had confused the Axis as to the likely point of attack, Rommel departed from his usual practice of holding his armoured strength in one concentrated reserve, instead dividing it into a northern group (Generalmajor Gustav von Vaerst’s 15th Panzerdivision and Generale di Divisione Gervasio Bitossi’s 133rd Divisione corazzata ‘Littorio’) and a southern group (Generalmajor Heinz von Randow’s 21st Panzerdivision and Generale di Divisione Francesco Arena’s 132nd Divisione corazzata ‘Ariete’), each organised into Kampfgruppen (battle groups) so that they could make rapid armoured interventions wherever needed and so prevent the enlargement of any narrow breakthroughs into larger exploiting torrents. Contrary to Rommel’s intent, though, the effect of this deployment of the Axis armour was that a significant proportion of the Axis armoured reserve was both dispersed and held unusually far forward. Farther back, though, Rommel did have Generalmajor Ernst Strecker’s 90th leichte Afrikadivision and Generale di Brigata Francisco La Ferla’s 101st Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Trieste’ in reserve near the coast. Rommel believed that when the main thrust came, he could manoeuvre his forces more rapidly than the British could manage with theirs and thus concentrate his forces at the battle’s centre of gravity. However, once he had concentrated his strength, Rommel would not be able to move his formations again for lack of fuel.
As a result of their intelligence advantage, the British were well aware that Rommel would be unable to mount a defence based on his usual concept of manoeuvre tactics. However, the British had no clear picture emerged of how Rommel would actually fight the battle and, as events were to prove, the British plans seriously underestimated the Axis defences and the capability of the Axis force, and especially the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee, to mount a sturdy resistance.
The 2nd Battle of El Alamein falls naturally into five phases: the ‘Lightfoot’ break-in of 23/24 October, the crumbling of 24/25 October, the counter of 26/28 October, ‘Supercharge’ of 1/2 November, and the break-out of 3/7 November; no name is given to the period of 29/31 October, when the battle was at a standstill.
Before the start of the artillery barrage which heralded the start of ‘Lightfoot’, Brigadier Arthur H. L. Godfrey’s Australian 24th Brigade of the Australian 9th Division made a diversion in which the 15th Panzerdivision was taken under heavy fire for a few minutes. Then at 21.40 on 23 October, during a calm, clear evening under the bright sky of a full moon, ‘Lightfoot’ began, though not with a 1,000-gun barrage as popularly believed, nor with all the guns firing at the same time. The fire plan had been carefully calculated so that the first rounds from the 882 guns of the 8th Army’s batteries of field and medium artillery landed simultaneously across the entire 40-mile (65-km) front. After 20 minutes of heavy general bombardment, the artillery switched its effort to precision targets in support of the advancing infantry. The fire plan continued for 5.5 hours, by the end of which each piece of artillery had fired about 600 rounds for a total of about 529,000 projectiles.
Unusually for a British operation in World War II, in which considerable effort was almost always made to select a codename bearing no relationship to the operation concerned, there was a reason for the ‘Lightfoot’ name: the infantry had to attack first, and the Axis anti-tank mines would not be triggered by soldiers running over them since the men were too light-footed. As the infantry advanced, supporting engineer parties was tasked to clear a path for the tanks coming behind: each stretch of land cleared of mines was to be 24 ft (7.3 m) wide, which was just sufficient for tanks to pass in single file. The engineers had to clear a route 5 miles (8 km) long through the Axis forces’ scattered ‘devil’s gardens’. This would have been a difficult task under ideal conditions, but was in fact not achieved because of the unexpected depth of the Axis minefields.
At 22.00, the 51st Division, Australian 9th Division, New Zealand 2nd Division and South African 1st Division of Leese’s XXX Corps began to advance with the object of establishing, before the break of day on 24 October, a ‘bridgehead’ at the imaginary line in the desert where the Axis forces’ strongest defences were situated to the west of the second belt of mines. Once the infantry had reached the first minefields, the supporting teams of minesweepers, including men of the Reconnaissance Corps and Royal Engineers, moved forward to start the process of creating a passage for the two armoured divisions of X Corps. The mineclearing effort was slower than had been planned, but at 02.00 the first of the 500 British tanks began to move forward. By 04.00 the leading tanks were in the minefields, where they stirred up so much dust that visibility fell effectively to zero, and traffic jams developed as the tanks got bogged down. Only about half of the infantry attained their objectives while none of the armour succeeded in breaking through.
Meanwhile, Major General A. F. Harding’s 7th Armoured Division (with Général de Brigade Marie Joseph Pierre François Koenig’s 1st Free French Brigade Group under command) of Horrocks’s XIII Corps made a secondary attack farther to the south. The main attack aimed to achieve a breakthrough, engage and pin the 21st Panzerdivision and 132nd Divisione corazzata ‘Ariete’ in the area of the Jebel Kalakh, while the Free French on the far left were to secure Qaret el Himeimat and secure the El Taqa plateau. The right flank of the attack was to be protected by Brigadier W. D. Stamer’s 131st Brigade of the 44th Division. The attack met strong resistance, mainly from Generale di Divisione Enrico Frattini’s 185th Divisione paracadutista ‘Folgore’, elements of Generalmajor Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke’s Fallschirmjägerbrigade ‘Ramcke’ and the Kampfgruppe ‘Keil’. The Italian 132nd Divisione corazzata, 185th Divisione paracadutisti, Generale di Divisione Brunetto Brunetti’s 27th Divisione fanteria ‘Brescia’ and one battalion of the 9th Reggimento bersaglieri were reported to have fought ‘magnificently’ on 24 October.
The minefields proved to be deeper than had been foreseen, and the clearance of paths through them was impeded by heavy defensive fire. As a result, by the break of day on 24 October, the two paths had not been wholly cleared through the second minefield to release Brigadier G. P. Roberts’s 22nd Armoured Brigade (57 Grant, 50 Crusader and 19 Stuart tanks) and Brigadier Marcus G. Roddick’s 4th Light Armoured Brigade (14 Grant and 57 Stuart tanks ad well as nine armoured cars) through the minefields to execute their planned turn to the north into the rear of the Axis positions 5 miles (8 km) to the west of Deir el Munassib.
Farther to the south, in the right wing of Horrocks’s XIII Corps, Major General J. S. Nichols’s 50th Division achieved limited gains at heavy cost against determined resistance by Generale di Brigata Nazzareno Scattaglia’s 17th Divisione fanteria ‘Pavia’, Brunetti’s 27th Divisione fanteria and elements of Frattini’s 185th Divisione paracadutisti. Major General F. I. S. Tuker’s Indian 4th Infantry Division, on the far left of the XXX Corps front at the Ruweisat Ridge in the centre of the 8th Army’s front, made a mock attack to the north of the Ruweisat Ridge and also a pair of small raids with the intension of diverting Axis attention to this point in the relatively unimportant centre of the front.
Aerial reconnaissance immediately after the break of day revealed little change in Axis dispositions, so Montgomery ordered that the priorities for the day were the clearance of the northern corridor, an advance to the south-west from the Miteirya Ridge by the New Zealand 2nd Division supported by 10th Armoured Division, in the north the planning of a ‘crumbling’ operation for implementation during following night by the Australian 9th Division, and in the south the continuance of the effort to break through the minefields by the 7th Armoured supported, if necessary, by the 44th Division.
Panzer units counterattacked the 51st Division just after sunrise, but were halted in their tracks.
The morning of 24 October brought disaster for the German headquarters. The reports received during the morning showed that the British attacks had been on a broad front but that such penetrations as had occurred were containable by the units already available in the areas in question. Stumme went forward himself to observe the state of affairs and, finding himself under fire, suffered a heart attack and died. Temporary command thus devolved onto Generalmajor Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, commander of the Deutsches Afrikakorps. Adolf Hitler had already decided that Rommel should leave his sanatorium and return to North Africa. Rommel arrived by air in Rome early on 25 October, and pressed the Comando Supremo for the rapid delivery of more fuel and ammunition, and then flew to North Africa to resume command that night of the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee.
The daylight hours therefore saw little activity pending the fuller clearance of paths through the minefields. The armour was held at the ‘Oxalic’ position, and right through the day artillery and the forces of Air Vice Marshal H. Broadhurst’s AHQ Western Desert (Western Desert Air Force from 27 October) flew more than 1,000 sorties and attacked Axis positions to aid the crumbling of the Axis forces.
As the fall of night approached, and thus with the sun at their backs, tanks of the 15th Panzerdivision and 133rd Divisione corazzata swung out from the so-called Kidney Ridge feature, which was actually a depression rather than a ridge, to engage Briggs’s 1st Armoured Division, and the first major armoured engagement of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein thus started. More than 100 tanks were involved and, by dark, half had been lost, although the position of neither side was altered.
During the darkness of the night which followed, the thrust by Gatehouse’s 10th Armoured Division from the Miteirya Ridge was unsuccessful. The lifting of mines on the Miteirya Ridge and to its west took considerably longer than had been planned and the leading unit, Brigadier C. N. Custance’s 8th Armoured Brigade (31 Sherman, 57 Grant and 45 Crusader tanks), was caught on its start line at 22.00 by an Axis air attack and was dispersed. By the time the brigade had reorganised, it were well behind schedule and was completely out of touch with the creeping artillery barrage, which had proceeded according to the original plan. By the break of day, the brigade was out in the open taking considerable fire from well-sited tanks and anti-tank guns. Meanwhile, Brigadier A. G. Kenchington’s 24th Armoured Brigade (93 Sherman, two Grant and 45 Crusader tanks) had pushed forward and reported at dawn it had reached the ‘Pierson’ line although, as it soon learned, in the dust and confusion it had mistaken their position and was in fact well short of the ‘Pierson’ position.
The attack in the sector of the XIII Corps farther to the south did no better. Stamer’s 131st Brigade of the 44th Division had managed to clear a path through the mines, but when Roberts’s 22nd Armoured Brigade passed through it came under heavy fire and was repulsed, 31 of its 126 tanks being disabled.
Allied air activity during the hours of darkness which followed was concentrated against the Axis forces’ northern armoured group, on which 120.5 tons of bombs were dropped. To prevent a recurrence of the experience of Custance’s 8th Armoured Brigade, which had suffered heavily in Axis air attacks, the bombing of Axis landing fields was also increased.
The initial thrust of ‘Lightfoot’ had ended by 24 October. The British and commonwealth forces had advanced to the west through the Axis minefields to achieve an inroad 6 miles (9.7 km) wide and 5 miles (8 km) deep, and now occupied the top of the Miteirya Ridge in the south-east, but at the same time the Axis forces were still firmly entrenched in most of their original positions and the battle was effectively at a standstill. Montgomery now decided that the planned advance to the south-west from the Miteirya Ridge by the New Zealand 2nd Division would be too costly, and therefore decided that the XXX Corps, while keeping firm hold of the Miteirya Ridge, would strike to the north in the direction of the coast with Morshead’s Australian 9th Division. Meanwhile, on the Australians’ left, Briggs’s 1st Armoured Division was to continue to attack to the west and north-west, and activity to the south on the fronts of both the X and XXX Corps would be limited to patrol efforts. The battle would now be concentrated at the Kidney Ridge feature and Tel el Eisa until the British and commonwealth forces had achieved a breakthrough.
By a time early in morning, the Axis forces had launched a series of attacks by elements of the 15th Panzerdivision and 13rd Divisione corazzata. The Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee was probing for a weakness in the British and commonwealth front, but found none. When the sun set, the British and commonwealth infantry attacked, and at about 24.00 Wimberley’s 51st Division launched three attacks, but no one knew exactly where they were. There followed disorder and carnage in which more than 500 British and commonwealth troops were lost, and leaving only one officer among the attacking force.
While the 51st Division was operating around the Kidney Ridge, the Australian 9th Division was attacking Point 29, an Axis artillery observation post, some 20 ft (6.1 m) high, located to the south-west of Tel el Eisa, in an attempt to surround the Axis coastal salient containing Generalleutnant Carl-Hans Lungershausen’s 164th leichte Afrikadivision and large numbers of Italian infantry. This was the new thrust to the north which Montgomery had schemed earlier in the day, and was to be the scene of heated battle for some days. Brigadier David A. Whitehead’s Australian 26th Brigade attacked at 24.00 with the support of artillery and 30 tanks of 40th Royal Tank Regiment. This force took the position and 240 prisoners. Fighting continued in this area for the next week, as the Axis forces attempted to recover the small hill that was so vital to their defence.
Meanwhile, the British night bombers dropped 103.67 tons of bombs on battlefield targets and 1.5 tons of bombs on the airfield at Sidi Haneish, which was used by Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers, while night fighters flew patrols over the battle area and the Axis air forces’ forward landing grounds.
In the south, Roddick’s 4th Light Armoured Brigade and Brigadier E. C. Cooke-Collis’s 69th Brigade of Nichols’s 50th Division attacked the 187th Reggimento of the 185th Divisione paracadutisti at Deir Munassib, but lost about 20 tanks while taking only the forward positions.
After returning to North Africa during the evening of 25 October, Rommel immediately assessed the current state of the battle: Axis casualties, particularly in the north as a result of what was little short of constant artillery and air attack, had been particularly heavy; Generale di Brigata Giorgio Masina’s 102nd Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Trento’ had lost about half of its infantry and most of its artillery, Lungershausen’s 164th leichte Afrikadivision had lost two battalions; and although the 15th Panzerdivision and 133rd Divisione corazzata had checked the British armour, this had been a very costly effort; most other formations and units were under strength, all the troops were on half rations, a large number of men were sick, and the entire Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee had fuel sufficient for only another three days.
His assessment of Montgomery’s probably intentions convinced Rommel that the main British and commonwealth assault would be delivered in the north, and he was determined to retake Point 29. Rommel ordered a counterattack against Point 29 by the 15th Panzerdivision, 164th leichte Afrikadivision and elements of Italian XX Motorised Corps at 15.00, but according to the British the response of their artillery and air forces rendered this fruitless, while according to Rommel the attack did meet with some success. Most of the Australian 2/17th Battalion, which had defended the position, was in fact forced to pull back.
During the day, Rommel reversed his policy of distributing his armour across the front, ordering Strecker’s 90th leichte Afrikadivision to move forward from Ed Daba and the 21st Panzerdivision to move to the north along with one-third of the 132nd Divisione corazzata and half the artillery from the southern sector to concentrate with the 15th Panzerdivision and 133rd Divisione corazzata in the north at what was becoming the focal point of the battle. La Ferla’s 101st Divisione autotrasportabile was ordered to relocate from Fuka to replace the 90th leichte Afrikadivision at Ed Daba. The 21st Panzerdivision and 132nd Divisione corazzata made slow progress during the night, however, as they were subjected to heavy bombing. Rommel was fully aware of the fact that the 21st Panzerdivision’s movement to the north had effectively exhausted the formation’s fuel, and therefore that would be unable to return to the south.
At Kidney Ridge, the British failed to take effective advantage of the absence of German armour, and each time the British attempted to advance they were stopped by anti-tank guns. The British and commonwealth offensive was in effect stalled.
In the air, matters were more successful for the British, for three Vickers Wellington torpedo night bombers of No. 38 Squadron destroyed the 5,890-ton tanker Tergestea, carrying some 1,000 tons of fuel and an equal weight of ammunition, at Tobruk and Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers of No. 42 Squadron, though attached to No. 47 Squadron, sank the 4,890-ton tanker Proserpina, carrying 4,500 tons of fuel, at Tobruk. This removed the last Axis hope of refuelling their land forces in the Western Desert. Rommel himself noted in his diary that the sinking of Tergestea and Proserpina in effect lost the 2nd Battle of El Alamein for the Axis forces.
Montgomery was very concerned that the momentum of the 8th Army’s offensive was declining. Although by 26 October the XXX Corps’ infantry had completed the capture of the planned ‘bridgehead’ to the west of the second mine belt, the armour of the X Corps, though established just beyond the infantry, had failed to break through the Axis anti-tank defences. Montgomery therefore decided that over the coming two days, the process of attrition would continue, and he would also thin the front to create a reserve with which to restore the 8th Army’s momentum. The reserve was to include the New Zealand 2nd Division with Brigadier J. Currie’s British 9th Armoured Brigade of 35 Sherman, 37 Grant and 46 Crusader tanks under command, Gatehouse’s 10th Armoured Division and Harding’s 7th Armoured Division. In the south, as part of Montgomery’s reassessment of what was required, the British and commonwealth attacks, which lasted three days and caused considerable losses without achieving a breakthrough, were suspended.
By this time, 27 October, the most important part of the battle was that concentrated around Tel el Aqqaqir and the Kidney Ridge feature at the western end of the path of Briggs’s 1st Armoured Division through the minefield. About 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north-west of the Kidney Ridge feature lay an area of resistance known as ‘Woodcock’, and approximately the same distance to the south-west lay the ‘Snipe’ centre of resistance. Montgomery’s staff now planned an attack on these areas using two battalions of Brigadier T. J. Bosville’s 7th Motor Brigade of the 1st Armoured Division: at 23.00 on 26 October the 2/Rifle Brigade and 2/King’s Royal Rifle Corps would attack ‘Snipe’ and ‘Woodcock’ respectively. The plan was for Brigadier A. Fisher’s 2nd Armoured Brigade of the 1st Armoured Division and Kenchington’s 24th Armoured Brigade to pass round the north of ‘Woodcock’ and south of ‘Snipe’ respectively. The attack was to be supported by all the available artillery of both the X and XXX Corps.
Both rifle battalions had difficulty finding their way in the dark and dust. At dawn, the 2/KRRC had not reached its objective and was forced to find cover and dig in some distance from ‘Woodcock’. The 2/Rifle Brigade had found grater success and, after following the shell bursts of the supporting artillery, dug in when the battalion commander concluded that his unit had reached its objective after encountering little in the way of opposition. At 06.00 the 2nd Armoured Brigade moved off but soon encountered opposition so strong that by 12.00 it had still not linked with the 2/KRRC. The 24th Armoured Brigade started a little later and was soon in contact with the 2/Rifle Brigade after shelling the battalion in error for a short time. There followed several hours of confused fighting in which the armour of the 133rd Divisione corazzata and the men and anti-tank guns of the 15th Panzerdivision managed to keep the British armour at bay in spite of the support of the anti-tank guns of the 2/Rifle Brigade’s battle group.
Meanwhile, Rommel had decided to make two major counterattacks using his troops. Strecker’s 90th leichte Afrikadivision was to make a fresh attempt to take Point 29 and von Randow’s 21st Panzerdivision was to target the ‘Snipe’ area, the detachment of the 132nd Divisione corazzata having returned to the south).
At the ‘Snipe’ position, mortar and artillery fire continued all day, and at 16.00 Rommel launched his major attack by German and Italian armour. Against the armour the 2/Rifle Brigade had 13 6-pdr (57-mm) anti-tank guns, another six by provided by the supporting 239th Anti-Tank Battery, Royal Artillery. Although on the point of being overrun on more than one occasion, the British held their ground, destroying 22 German and 10 Italian tanks. The Axis forces then ended their effort, but in error the British battle group was withdrawn during the evening without being replaced. Only one anti-tank gun, a weapon of the 239th Battery, was brought back.
When it was discovered that neither ‘Woodcock’ nor ‘Snipe’ was in the hands of the 8th Army, hands, Brigadier A. W. Lee’s 133rd Lorried Infantry Brigade, on detachment to 10th Armoured Division from the 44th Division, was despatched to take and hold them. By 01.30 on 28 October, the 4/Royal Sussex Regiment judged, of one the brigade’s three Sussex battalions, that it was on ‘Woodcock’ and dug in. At dawn the 2nd Armoured Brigade moved up in support but before contact could be made 4/Royal Sussex was counterattacked and overrun with heavy losses. Meanwhile, the 133rd Lorried Brigade’s two other battalions had moved on ‘Snipe’ and dug in, only to find out on the next day that they were in fact well short of their objective.
Farther to the north, the 90th leichte Afrikadivision’s attack on Point 29 during the afternoon of 27 October failed under heavy artillery and bombing, which broke up the attack before it had closed with the Australians.
On 28 October, the 15th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision made a determined attack on the X Corps’ front but were halted by sustained artillery, tank and anti-tank gun fire. In the afternoon, they paused to regroup before making another attack, but were bombed for 2.5 hours and thereby prevented even from forming up. This proved to be Rommel’s last attempt to take the initiative, and as such his defeat here represented a turning point in the battle.
Montgomery now ordered the X Corps’ formations in the area of ‘Woodcock’ and ‘Snipe’ to go over to the defensive while he focused the 8th Army’s attack farther to the north. Late on 27 October, the 133rd Lorried Brigade was sent forward to recover lost positions, but on the following day a sizeable part of this force was overrun by German and Italian tanks from the 133rd Divisione corazzata supporting 12th Reggimento bersaglieri, and several hundred British soldiers were taken prisoner. On the night of 28/29 October, the Australians were allocated a second set-piece attack. Brigadier H. Wrigley’s Australian 20th Brigade, with the 40th Royal Tank Regiment in support, was to drive to the north-west from Point 29 to form a base for Whitehead’s Australian 26th Brigade which, with the 46th RTR in support, was then to strike to the north-east to an Axis-held location to the south of the coastal railway line and known as ‘Thompson’s Post’ and then over the railway line to the coast road, from which its would then advance to the south-east and close on the rear of the Axis troops in the coastal salient. An attack by the division’s third element, Godfrey’s Australian 24th Brigade, would then be launched on the salient from the south-east.
The Australian 20th Brigade took its objectives with little trouble, but the Australian 26th Brigade had a more difficult time of it. Because of the distances involved, the troops were riding on the Valentine tanks of the 46th RTR as well as carriers, which mines and anti-tank guns soon brought to grief, forcing the infantry to dismount. The infantry and armour lost touch with each other in the combat which followed with the 125th Panzergrenadierregiment and one battalion of the 7th Reggimento bersaglieri, which had been despatched to reinforce the sector, and the British advance came to a halt. The Australians suffered 200 casualties in this attack, and overall lost 27 killed and 290 wounded. The German and Italian forces involved in the counterattack formed an outpost and successfully held his outpost until the arrival of German reinforcements on 1 November.
It became clear that there were no longer enough hours of darkness left to reform, continue the attack and see it to its conclusion, so Montgomery’s operation was discontinued.
The 7th Reggimento bersaglieri and 12th Reggimento bersaglieri had played an important part in the reverses which the British and Australian suffered on 28 and 29 October, and Rommel wrote that ‘The German soldier has impressed the world, but the Italian Bersagliere has impressed the German soldier.’
By the end of these engagements late in October, the British still possessed 800 serviceable tanks, while the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee’s report for 28 October (intercepted and read by the 8th Army’s staff during the evening of the next day) recorded just 81 serviceable German tanks and 197 serviceable Italian tanks. Signals intelligence information was proving to be of inestimable value to the British and commonwealth cause: Proserpina and Tergestea had already been destroyed on 26 October, and the 2,552-ton tanker Luisiano, carrying 2,500 tons of fuel, was sunk off the west coast of Greece by a torpedo from a Wellington bomber on 28 October. It was at this time that Rommel told his senior commanders that ‘It will be quite impossible for us to disengage from the enemy. There is no fuel for such a manoeuvre. We have only one choice, and that is to fight to the end at El Alamein.’
Despite their failure, the actions of the Australians and British in the north had alerted Montgomery to the fact that Rommel had committed his reserve, Strecker’s 90th leichte Afrikadivision, and that presence in the coastal sector suggested that Rommel was expecting the 8th Army’s next major effort in this sector. Montgomery therefore decided that his next major effort would be made farther to the south on a 4,000-yard (3660-m) front to the south of Point 29. The attack was to be made on the night of 31 October/1 November, as soon as Montgomery had completed the reorganisation of his front line to create the reserve required for the offensive, although in the event the attack was postponed by 24 hours. To persuade Rommel to keep his attention focused on the coastal sector, Montgomery ordered the renewal of the Australian 9th Division’s operation on the night of 30/31 October.
The night of 30 October/1 November saw the continuance of the previous Australian plans, in the form of a third attempt to reach the paved coastal road. Although not all the objectives were achieved, by the end of the night the Australians were astride the road and railway lines, rendering precarious the position of the Axis troops in the salient. On 31 October, Rommel brought up a Kampfgruppe of the 21st Panzerdivision and launched a succession of four attacks against ‘Thompson’s Post’. The fighting was intense and often hand-to-hand, but the Axis forces took no ground.
On 1 November Rommel tried once again to dislodge the Australians, but the savage fighting resulted in nothing but lost men and equipment. He did, however, regain contact with the 125th Panzergrenadierregiment at the head of the salient and the supporting battalion of the 10th Reggimento bersaglieri which, according to German reports, had resisted several Australian attacks even though ‘surrounded on all sides, short of ammunition, food and water, and unable to evacuate their many wounded’.
By this time, Rommel knew that the battle was lost. The Axis forces’ fuel state continued to be critical: on 1 November, two more supply ships, the 1,094-ton Italian Tripolino and 359-ton Spanish Ostia, had been torpedoed from the air and sunk in the area to the north-west of Tobruk. The critical nature of the Axis forces’ acute fuel shortage is revealed by the fact that Rommel was forced to rely increasingly on fuel delivered by air from Crete on the orders of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the German Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, despite the restrictions imposed by the British heavy bombing of Cretan airfields and the Western Desert Air Force’s efforts to intercept the transport aircraft.
Rommel began to plan a retreat, anticipating a withdrawal to the little coastal town of Fuka, some 50 miles (80 km) to the west. Ironically, so far as the Axis Forces were concerned, large quantities of fuel reached Benghazi, after the Axis forces had started to retreat, but little of it reached the front, a fact Kesselring tried to change by delivering it more closely to the fighting forces.
Albeit more slowly and with greater difficulty than had been anticipated, ‘Lightfoot’ had finally succeeded, and in the process set the scene for ‘Supercharge’ (ii).