The '1st Battle of El Alamein' was fought in north-western Egypt between Axis (German and Italian) forces of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee 'Afrika' and Allied (British commonwealth and imperial) forces of General Sir Claude Auchinleck’s 8th Army (1/27 July 1942).
In this important battle, the British-led forces prevented a second advance by the Axis forces into Egypt. The Axis positions near El Alamein, only some 65 miles (105 km) from the vital port city of Alexandria, were dangerously close to the ports and cities of Egypt, the base facilities of the British-led forces and the Suez Canal. However, the Axis forces were dangerously far removed from their base at Tripoli in Libya to remain at El Alamein indefinitely, which led both sides to accumulate supplies for more offensives, against the constraints of time and distance.
After its defeat in the 'Battle of Gazala' in the Cyrenaican province of eastern Libya in June 1942, the British 8th Army, commanded by Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie, had retreated eastward from the 'Gazala Line' into north-western Egypt as far as Mersa Matruh, some 100 miles (160 km) inside the border. Despite the partial implementation of the 'Freeborn' (i) plan, Ritchie had decided not to hold the defences on the Egyptian border as the defensive plan was for infantry to hold defended localities and a strong armoured force to be created behind the infantry to meet any Axis attempts to penetrate or outflank the fixed defences. Since Ritchie had virtually no armoured units still capable of effective combat, the infantry positions would thus be exposed to defeat in detail. The Mersa Matruh defence plan also included an armoured reserve, but in this latter’s absence Ritchie believed he could organise his infantry to cover the minefields between the defended localities to prevent Axis engineers from having undisturbed access.
To defend the Mersa Matruh line, Ritchie placed Major General J. S. Nichols’s (from 22 July Major General A. B. Blaxland’s) Indian 10th Division in Mersa Matruh itself and Major General W. H. Ramsden’s British 50th Division some 16 miles (24 km) down the coast at Gerawla under command of Lieutenant General W. G. Holmes’s British X Corps, newly arrived from Syria. Inland from the X Corps would be Lieutenant General W. H. E. Gott’s British XIII Corps with Major General H. R. Briggs’s Indian 5th Division (with only the Indian 29th Brigade and two artillery regiments) around Sidi Hamza about 20 miles (32 km) inland, and Major General B. C. Freyberg’s newly arrived New Zealand 2nd Division (less its 6th Brigade, which had been left out of combat in case the division was captured and it would be needed to serve as the nucleus of a new division) at Minqar Qaim on the escarpment 30 miles (48 km) inland, and Major General H. Lumsden’s British 1st Armoured Division in the open desert to the south. This last formation had assumed command of Brigadier G. W. Richards’s British 4th Armoured Brigade and Brigadier A. F. Fisher’s British 22nd Armoured Brigade from Major General J. M. L. Renton’s 7th Armoured Division: by this time the two brigades had only three tank regiments between them.
On 25 June, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, heading the Middle East Command, relieved Ritchie and himself assumed direct command of the 8th Army. Auchinleck decided not to seek a decisive confrontation at the Mersa Matruh position after concluding that his inferiority in armour after the defeat at Gazala meant he would be unable to prevent Rommel either breaking through his centre or enveloping his open left flank to the south in the same way he had achieved at Gazala. Auchinleck decided instead to employ delaying tactics while withdrawing another 100 miles (160 km) or more to the east to a more defensible position near El Alamein on the Mediterranean coast. Only some 40 miles (65 km) to the south of El Alamein, the steep slopes of the Qattara Depression’s northern edge rendered it impossible for Axis armour to move round the southern flank of his defences and limited the width of the front the 8th Army had to defend.
While preparing the El Alamein position, Auchinleck fought strong delaying actions, of which the first was at Mersa Matruh on 26/27 June and then at Fuka on 28 June. The late change of orders resulted in some confusion in the forward formations (X Corps and XIII Corps) between the desire to inflict damage on the Axis forces and the intention not to get trapped in the Mersa Matruh position but instead to retreat in good order. The result was poor co-ordination between the two forward corps and the formations and units within them. Late on 26 June, Generalmajor Ulrich Kleemann’s (from 13 July Generalleutnant Carl-Hans Lungershausen’s) 90th leichte Division and Generalmajor Georg von Bismarck’s 21st Panzerdivision managed to find their way through the minefields in the centre of the front. Early on 27 June, resuming its advance, the 90th leichte Division was checked by the artillery of the British 50th Division. Meanwhile, Oberst Eduard Crasemann’s 15th Panzerdivision and the 21st Panzerdivision advanced to the east above and below the escarpment. The 15th Panzerdivision was blocked by the 4th Armoured and 7th Motor Brigades, but the 21st Panzerdivision was instructed to attack Minqar Qaim. Rommel ordered the 90th leichte Division to resume its advance, requiring it to cut the coast road behind the 50th Division by the evening. As the 21st Panzerdivision moved on Minqar Qaim, the New Zealand 2nd Division found itself surrounded but broke out on the night of 27/28 June without serious losses, and withdrew to the east.
Auchinleck had planned a second delaying position at Fuka, some 30 miles (48 km) to the east of Mersa Matruh, and at 21.20 issued orders for a withdrawal to Fuka. Confusion in communication led the division withdrawing immediately to the El Alamein position. Having made an unsuccessful attempt to secure a position on the escarpment, the X Corps was out of touch with the 8th Army from 19.30 until 04.30 in the morning of the following day. Only then did the corps discover that the withdrawal order had been given. The withdrawal of the XIII Corps had left exposed the southern flank of the X Corps on the coast at Mersa Matruh, and the corps' line of retreat compromised by the cutting of the coastal road 17 miles (27 km) to the east of Mersa Matruh. The corps was ordered to break out to the south into the desert and then make its way to the east. Auchinleck ordered the XIII Corps to provide support, but this formation was in no position to do so. At 21.00 on 28 June, the X Corps, organised into brigade groups, headed to the south. In the darkness, there was considerable confusion as the the brigade groups came across Axis formations and units laagered for the night. In the process, the Indian 5th Division in particular sustained heavy casualties, including the destruction of its 29th Brigade at Fuka. The Axis forces took prisoner more than 6,000 men in addition to 40 tanks and a very substantial quantity of supplies.
El Alamein itself was at this time an inconsequential railway station on the coast. Some 10 miles (16 km) to its south lay the Ruweisat Ridge, a low stony prominence that gave excellent observation for many miles over the surrounding desert, and 20 miles (32 km) to the south was the Qattara Depression. The line the British chose to defend stretched between the sea and the depression, which meant that Rommel could outflank it only by taking a significant detour to the south and crossing the Sahara desert. The British army in Egypt had recognised this fact before the war and had the 8th Army begin construction of several 'boxes' (localities with dug-outs and surrounded by minefields and barbed wire), of which the most developed was that around the railway station at El Alamein. Most of the so-called 'line' was open, empty desert. Lieutenant General C. W. M. Norrie, commander of the XXX Corps, organised the position and started to construct three defended 'boxes'. The first and strongest, at El Alamein on the coast, had been partly wired and mined by Major General D. H. Pienaar’s South African 1st Division. The Bab el Qattara box, some 20 miles (32 km) from the coast and 8 miles (13 km) to the south-west of the Ruweisat ridge, had been dug but neither wired nor mined, while at the Naq Abu Dweis box, on the edge of the Qattara depression 34 miles (55 km) from the coast, very little work had been done.
The British position in Egypt was currently desperate: the rout from Mersa Matruh had created a panic ('the Flap') at the British headquarters in Cairo, and at the British headquarters, rear-echelon units and the British embassy, papers were burned in anticipation of the fall of the city. Although believing he could stop Rommel at El Alamein, Auchinleck felt he could not ignore the possibility that he might once more be outmanoeuvred or outfought and, in order to maintain his army, must plan for the possibility of a further retreat whilst maintaining morale and retaining the support and co-operation of the Egyptians. Defensive positions were constructed to he west of Alexandria and on the approaches to Cairo, and considerable areas of the Nile river delta were flooded. The Axis forces also believed that the capture of Egypt was imminent, and Benito Mussolinu, the Italian dictator, felt that a historic moment was imminent and flew to Libya to prepare for his triumphal entry into Cairo.
The scattering of the X Corps at Mersa Matruh disrupted Auchinleck’s plan for the occupation of the defences at El Alamein, and on 29 June he ordered the XXX Corps (1st South African and Indian 5th and 10th Divisions) to take the coastal sector on the right of the front and the XIII Corps (New Zealand 2nd and Indian 4th Divisions) to be on the left. The remains of the 1st Armoured Division and the 7th Armoured Division were to be held as a mobile army reserve. Auchinleck’s intention was for the fixed defensive positions to channel and disorganise the Axis advance while mobile units moved to attack their flanks and rear.
On 30 June, the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' approached the El Alamein position. The Axis forces were both exhausted and understrength, for Rommel had driven them forward ruthlessly in the belief that, provided he struck quickly before the 8th Army had time to settle, his momentum would take him through the El Alamein position and he could then advance to the Nile river with little in the way of further opposition. Supplies remained a problem because the Axis staff had originally expected a pause of six weeks after the capture of Tobruk. German air units were also exhausted and providing little help against the RAF’s all-out attack on the Axis supply lines which, with the arrival of heavy bombers of the US Army Air Forces, could reach as far as Benghazi. Although captured supplies proved useful, water and ammunition were constantly in short supply, while a shortage of transport impeded the distribution of the supplies that the Axis forces did have.
Rommel’s plan was for the 90th leichte Division and the 15th and 21st Panzerdivisions of General Walther Nehring’s Deutsches Afrika Korps to penetrate the line of the 8th Army between the El Alamein box and Deir el Abyad which, he believed, was defended. The 90th leichte Division was then to diverge to the north to cut the coastal road and trap the defenders of the El Alamein box, which Rommel thought was occupied by the remains of the 50th Division, and the Deutsches Afrika Korps veered to the right to fall on the rear of the XIII Corps. An Italian division was to attack the El Alamein box from the west and another was to follow the 90th leichte Division. The Italian XX Corpo d’Armata was to follow the Deutsches Afrika Korps and deal with the Qattara box, while the 133s Divisione corazzata 'Littorio' and German reconnaissance units would protect the right flank.
Rommel had planned to attack on 30 June, but supply and transport difficulties had resulted in a day’s delay, which proved vital for the defending forces reorganising themselves on the El Alamein line. On 30 June, the 90th leichte Division was still 15 miles (24 km) short of its start line, the 21st Panzerdivision was immobilised by lack of fuel, and the promised air support had yet to move into its advanced airfields.
At 03.00 on 1 July, the 90th leichte Division advanced to the east but strayed too far north and ran into the South African 1st Division’s defences and became pinned down. The 15th and 21st Panzerdivisions of the Deutsches Afrika Korps were delayed by a sandstorm and then a heavy air attack, so it was full day by the time they circled round the back of Deir el Abyad, where they found the feature to the east of it occupied by Brigadier R. G. Lochner’s Indian 18th Brigade which, after a hasty journey from Iraq, had occupied the exposed position just to the west of the Ruweisat ridge and to the east of Deir el Abyad at Deir el Shein late on 28 June to create one of Norrie’s additional defensive boxes.
At about 10.00 on 1 July, the 21st Panzerdivision attacked Deir el Shein. The Indian 18th Brigade, supported by 23 25-pdr gun/howitzers, 16 of the new 6-pdr anti-tank guns and nine Matilda infantry tanks, held out the whole day in desperate fighting, but by evening the Germans had overrun it. The time the brigade bought allowed Auchinleck to organise the defence of the western end of Ruweisat ridge, however. The 1st Armoured Division had been sent to intervene at Deir el Shein, and encountered the 15th Panzerdivision just to the south of Deir el Shein and drove it west. By the end of the day’s fighting, the Deutsches Afrika Korps had left to it only 37 tanks of its initial complement of 55 tanks.
During the early afternoon, the 90th leichte Division had extricated itself from the defences of the El Alamein box and resumed its advance to the east. It then came under artillery fire from the three South African brigade groups and was forced to dig in.
On 2 July, Rommel ordered the resumption of the offensive. Once again, the 90th leichte Division failed to make progress, so Rommel called the Deutsches Afrika Korps to abandon its planned sweep to the south and instead join the effort to break through to the coast road by attacking east toward the Ruweisat ridge. The British defence of this feature was based on the improvised 'Robcol, comprising a regiment each of field artillery and light anti-aircraft artillery and one company of infantry. In accord with normal British practice for extemporised unit, the column was named after its commander, Brigadier R. P. Waller, the artillery commander of the Indian 10th Division. 'Robcol' was able to buy time, and by the late afternoon the two British armoured brigades joined the battle, the 4th Armoured Brigade engaging the 15th Panzerdivision and 22nd Armoured Brigade the 21st Panzerdivision respectively. The two British brigades drove back repeated attacks by the Axis armour, which then withdrew before dusk. The British reinforced Ruweisat ridge during the night of 2/3 July and, now enlarged, 'Robcol' became 'Walgroup'. Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force flew heavy attacks on the Axis formations and units.
On the next day, 3 July, Rommel ordered the Deutsches Afrika Korps to resume its attack on the Ruweisat ridge with the Italian XX Corpo d’Armata motorizzato on its southern flank. The Italian X Corpo d’Armata was meanwhile to hold El Mreir. By this stage the Deutsches Afrika Korps had left to it a mere 26 operational tanks. There was a sharp armoured exchange to the south of Ruweisat ridge during the morning and the main Axis advance was held. On 3 July, the RAF flew 780 sorties.
To relieve the pressure on the right and centre of the 8th Army’s line, the XIII Corps on the left advanced from the Qattara box, which was known to the New Zealanders as the Kaponga box. The plan was that the New Zealand 2nd Division, with the remains of Indian 5th Division and 7th Motor Brigade under command, to swing northward and thus threaten the Axis flank and rear. This force encountered the artillery of the 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete', which was driving on the southern flank of the division as it attacked Ruweisat. The Italian commander ordered his battalions to fight their way out independently but the division lost 531 men, of whom about 350 were taken prisoner), 36 pieces of artillery, six or eight tanks, and 55 trucks: by the end of the day, the 132a Divisione corazzata had only five tanks. The day ended once again with the Deutsches Afrika Korps and 132a Divisione corazzata coming off second best to the superior numbers of the British 22nd Armoured and 4th Armoured Brigades, which had begun the day with 119 tanks, thereby frustrating Rommel’s attempts to resume his advance. The RAF once again played its part, flying 900 sorties during the day.
To the south, on 5 July the New Zealand group resumed its advance northward towards El Mreir with the intention of cutting into the rear of the 132a Divisione corazzata. However, heavy fire from the Italian 27a Divisione fanteria 'Brescia' at El Mreir, 5 miles (8 km) to the north of the Qattara box, checked the group’s progress and led the XIII Corps to call off its attack.
At this point, Rommel decided his exhausted forces could make no further headway without resting and regrouping. He reported to the German high command that his three German divisions numbered just 1,200 to 1,500 men each, and resupply was proving highly problematic because of Allied interference from the air. He expected to have to remain on the defensive for at least two weeks.
By this time. of course, Rommel’s forces were suffering from the extended length of their supply lines. Air Vice Marshal A. Coningham’s Western Desert Air Force was concentrating fiercely on his fragile and elongated supply routes, while British mobile columns moving west and striking from the south were causing havoc in the Axis rear echelons. Rommel could afford these losses even less than before since shipments from Italy had been substantially reduced (in June he had received 4,500 tons of supplies by comparison with 31,000 tons in May, and 400 vehicles compared with 2,000 in May. The 8th Army was meanwhile was reorganising and rebuilding, benefiting from its considerably shorter lines of communication. By 4 July, Major General L. Morshead’s Australian 9th Division had entered the line in the north, and on 9 July the Indian 5th Brigade also returned, taking over the Ruweisat position. At the same time, Brigadier F. E. C. Hughes’s fresh Indian 161st Brigade reinforced the depleted Indian 5th Division.
On 8 July, Auchinleck ordered the new commander of the XXX Corps, Ramsden, to capture the low ridges at Tel el Eisa and Tel el Makh Khad and then to push mobile battle groups to the south toward Deir el Shein and raiding parties to the west toward the airfields at El Daba. Meanwhile, the XIII Corps would prevent the Rommel from moving troops to the north to reinforce the coastal sector. Ramsden tasked the Australian 9th Division, with 44th Royal Tank Regiment under command, with the Tel el Eisa objective and the South African 1st Division, with eight supporting tanks, with the Tel el Makh Khad undertaking. The raiding parties were to be provided by 1st Armoured Division.
Following a bombardment which started at 03.30 on 10 July, Brigadier R. W. Tovell’s Australian 26th Brigade launched an attack against the ridge to the north of Tel el Eisa station along the coast. The bombardment was the heaviest barrage yet experienced in North Africa, which created panic in the inexperienced soldiers of the Italian 60a Divisione fanteria 'Sabratha', who had only just occupied sketchy defences in the sector. The Australian attack took more than 1,500 prisoners, routed an Italian division and overran the all-important signals intercept company of the Panzerarmee 'Afrika'. Meanwhile, by a time late in the morning the South Africans had taken Tel el Makh Khad and were in covering positions.
Elements of Generalleutnant Josef Foltmann’s 164th leichte Afrikadivision and the Italian 101a Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste' arrived to seal the gap torn in the Axis defences. That afternoon and evening, tanks of the 15th Panzerdivision and 132a Divisione corazzata launched counterattacks against the Australian positions, but these failed in the face of overwhelming Allied artillery fire and the Australian anti-tank guns.
At first light on 11 July, the Australian 2/24th Battalion supported by tanks from 44th Royal Tank Regiment attacked the western end of Tel el Eisa hill (Point 24): by a time early in the afternoon, this feature had been captured and was then held against a series of Axis counterattacks throughout the rest of the day. A small column of armour, motorised infantry and artillery then set off to raid Deir el Abyad, and caused a battalion of Italian infantry to surrender. The column’s progress was checked at the Miteirya ridge, and the column was forced to withdraw that evening to the El Alamein box. During the day, more than 1,000 Italian prisoners were taken.
On 12 July, the 21st Panzerdivision launched a counterattack against ridge to the north of Tel el Eisa station and Point 24, but this was driven back after a 150-minute eight, with more than 600 German dead and wounded left strewn in front of the Australian positions. On the next day, the 21st Panzerdivision launched an attack against Point 33 and the South African positions in the El Alamein box. In the El Alamein box, the Royal Durban Light Infantry faced the full force of the German attacks. The South Africans lacked adequate anti-tank guns and the German artillery cut the South African telephone cables, disrupting their field artillery support. The attack was halted by intense artillery fire from the defenders. Although the South Africans repulsed the German attack, by 16.10 German tanks and dive-bombers had advanced to positions within 330 yards (300 m) of the South African positions. The Australian 9th Field Artillery Regiment and British 7th Medium Artillery Regiment had to assist in repulsing the German attack. At last light, the British 79th Anti-Tank Regiment was deployed to assist the South African forces, but by this time the German attack was petering out. The South African losses on 13 July totalled nine dead and 42 wounded. Although the South African casualties were relatively light, their skill in withstanding the German attacks offset their losses. Had the El Alamein box been captured by Rommel’s forces, the consequences for the 8th Army would have been devastating: the El Alamein line would have been ruptured, the Australian forces would have been cut off from the rest of the 8th Army, and a general retreat to the Nile river delta would have become inevitable. Rommel was still determined to drive the British forces from the northern salient. Although the Australian defenders had been forced back from Point 24, heavy casualties had been inflicted on the 21st Panzerdivision. Another attack was delivered on 15 July but made no ground against tenacious resistance. On 16 July, the Australians, supported by British armour, launched an attack to try to take Point 24 but were forced back by German counterattacks and suffered nearly 50% casualties.
After seven days of fierce fighting, the battle in the north for Tel el Eisa salient petered out. The Australian 9th Division estimated that at least 2,000 Axis troops had been killed and more than 3,700 men taken prisoner. Possibly the most important feature of the battle, however, was that the Australians had captured the German signals intercept company, which had provided Rommel with invaluable intelligence from British radio communications.
As the Axis forces dug in, Auchinleck, having drawn a number of German units to the coastal sector during the Tel el Eisa fighting, developed a 'Bacon' plan to attack the Italian 17a Divisione fanteria 'Pavia' and 27a Divisione fanteria 'Brescia' in the centre of the front at the Ruweisat ridge. Signals intelligence was giving Auchinleck clear details of the Axis order of battle and force dispositions, and his operational concept was now based on '[hitting] the Italians wherever possible in view of their low morale and because the Germans cannot hold extended fronts without them'. The intention was for Lieutenant Colonel J. T. Burrows’s New Zealand 4th Brigade and, on its right, Kippenberger’s New Zealand 5th Brigade to attack to the north-west to seize the western part of the ridge and on their right Brigadier D. Russell’s Indian 5th Brigade to capture the eastern part of the ridge in a night attack. The 2nd Armoured Brigade would then pass through the centre of the infantry objectives to exploit toward Deir el Shein and the Miteirya ridge. On the left, the 22nd Armoured Brigade would be ready to move forward to protect the infantry as they consolidated on the ridge.
The attack began at 23.00 on 14 July. The two New Zealand brigades took their objectives shortly before dawn on 15 July, but minefields and pockets of resistance left behind the forward troops' advance created disarray among the attackers, impeding the move forward of reserves, artillery and support arms. As a result, the New Zealand brigades occupied exposed positions on the ridge without support weapons except for a few anti-tank guns. More significantly, the two British armoured brigades failed to move forward to protect the infantry. At first light, a detachment of the 15th Panzerdivision's 8th Panzerregiment launched a counterattack against New Zealand 4th Brigade’s 22nd Battalion. A sharp exchange knocked out the New Zealanders' anti-tank guns and the infantry found themselves exposed in the open with no alternative but to surrender. About 350 New Zealanders were taken prisoner.
While the New Zealand 2nd Division attacked the western slopes of Ruweisat ridge, the Indian 5th Brigade made small gains on Ruweisat ridge to the east. By 07.00, word was finally got to 2nd Armoured Brigade, which began to move to the north-west. Two regiments became embroiled in a minefield but the third was able to join the Indian 5th Brigade as it renewed its attack. With the help of the armour and artillery, the Indians were able to take their objectives by a time early in the afternoon. The 22nd Armoured Brigade had meanwhile been engaged at Alam Nayil by the 90th leichte Division and the 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete' advancing from the south. While the aid from mobile infantry and artillery columns of the 7th Armoured Division helped the 22nd Armoured Brigade to drive back the Axis probe with ease, the brigade was prevented from advancing to the north for protection of the New Zealanders' flank.
Seeing that the 27a Divisione fanteria 'Brescia' and 17a Divisione fanteria 'Pavia' were under pressure, Rommel rushed German troops to Ruweisat ridge. By 15.00, the 3rd Aufklärungsregiment and part of 21st Panzerdivision from the north and the 33rd Aufklärungsregiment and the Kampfgruppe 'Baade', comprising elements from 15th Panzerdivision from the south, were in place under General Walther Nehring. At 17.00, Nehring launched his counterattack. The New Zealand 4th Brigade was still short of support weapons and, by this time, was also short of ammunition. Once again, the anti-tank defences were overwhelmed and about 380 New Zealanders were taken prisoner. At about 18.00, the brigade’s headquarters was overrun. At about 18.15, the 2nd Armoured Brigade engaged the German armour and halted the Axis advance to the east. At dusk, Nehring broke off the action.
Early on 16 July, Nehring renewed his attack. The Indian 5th Brigade pushed the Germans back, but it was clear from intercepted radio traffic that a further attempt would be made. Strenuous preparations to dig in anti-tank guns were made, artillery fire plans organised and a regiment from the 22nd Armoured Brigade was sent to reinforce the 2nd Armoured Brigade. When the German attack was resumed late in the afternoon, it was repulsed. After the battle, the Indians counted 24 knocked-out tanks, as well as armoured cars and numerous anti-tank guns left on the battlefield.
In three days of fighting, the Allies had taken more than 2,000 Axis prisoners, mostly from the 27a Divisione fanteria 'Brescia' and 17a Divisione fanteria 'Pavia'. The New Zealand 2nd Division had suffered 1,405 casualties. The fighting at Tel el Eisa and the Ruweisat ridge had effectively destroyed three Italian divisions, forced Rommel to redeploy his armour from the south, made it necessary for the Axis forces to lay minefields in front of the remaining Italian divisions, and stiffen the Italian divisions with detachments of German troops.
To relieve the pressure on the Ruweisat ridge, Auchinleck ordered the Australian 9th Division to make another attack from the north. In the early hours of 17 July, Brigadier A. H. L. Godfrey’s Australian 24th Brigade, supported by the 44th Royal Tank Regiment and strong air cover, assaulted the Miteirya ridge, which became known to the Australians as 'Ruin Ridge' The initial night attack went well, with 736 prisoners taken, mostly from the Italian 102a Divisione motorizzata 'Trento' and 101a Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste'. Once again, however, a critical situation for the Axis forces was retrieved by vigorous counterattacks from hastily assembled German and Italian forces, which forced the Australians to withdraw to their start line with 300 casualties.
The 8th Army now enjoyed a massive matériel superiority over the Axis forces: the 1st Armoured Division had 173 tanks and more in reserve or in transit, this figure including 61 Grant medium tanks, while Rommel could call on only 38 German and 51 Italian tanks, although his armoured units had some 100 tanks awaiting repair.
Auchinleck’s plan was for the Indian 161st Brigade to attack along Ruweisat ridge to take Deir el Shein, while the New Zealand 6th Brigade attacked from south of the ridge to the El Mreir depression. At daylight, two British armoured brigades, the 2nd Armoured Brigade and Brigadier L. E. Misa’s fresh 23rd Armoured Brigade, would sweep through the gap created by the infantry. The plan was complicated and ambitious.
The infantry’s night attack began at 16.30 on 21 July. The New Zealand attack took their objectives in the El Mreir depression but, once again, many vehicles failed to arrive and the New Zealanders were short of support arms in an exposed position. At the break of day on 22 July, the British armoured brigades again failed to advance. At daybreak on 22 July, Nehring’s 5th Panzerregiment and 8th Panzerregiment responded with a rapid counterattack which quickly overran the New Zealand infantry in the open, inflicting more than 900 casualties on the New Zealanders. The 2nd Armoured Brigade sent forward two regiments to help, but these were halted by mines and the fire of anti-tank guns.
The attack of the Indian 161st Brigade had mixed fortunes. On the left, the initial attempt to clear the western end of the Ruweisat ridge failed, but at 08.00 a renewed attack by the reserve battalion succeeded. On the right, the attacking battalion broke into the Deir el Shein position but was driven back in hand-to-hand fighting.
Compounding the disaster at El Mreir, at 08.00 Misa ordered his 23rd Armoured Brigade forward, intent on following his orders to the letter. Major General A. H. Gatehouse, commanding 1st Armoured Division after Lumsden had been wounded on 19 July, had been unconvinced that a path had been adequately cleared in the minefields and had suggested the advance be cancelled. However, Gott, commander of the XIII Corps, rejected this and ordered the attack but on a centreline 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south of that ordained in the original plan, and which he incorrectly believed was mine-free. These orders did not get through to Misa, and the attack went ahead as originally planned. The 23rd Armoured Brigade found itself trapped in minefields and under heavy fire, and was then counterattacked by the 21st Panzerdividion at 11.00 and forced to withdraw. The 23rd Armoured Brigade had been effectively eliminated, with the loss of 40 tanks destroyed and 47 badly damaged.
At 17.00, Gott ordered the Indian 5th Division to execute a night attack to capture the western half of the Ruweisat ridge and Deir el Shein. The 3/14th Punjab Regiment of Brigadier B. C. Fletcher’s Indian 9th Brigade attacked at 02.00 on 23 July but failed as it lost its direction. A further attempt in daylight succeeded in breaking into the position, but intense fire from three sides resulted in control being lost as the commanding officer was killed, and four of his senior officers were wounded or went missing.
To the north, the Australian 9th Division continued its attacks. At 06.00 on 22 July, Tovell’s Australian 26th Brigade attacked Tel el Eisa and Godfrey’s Australian 24th Brigade attacked Tel el Makh Khad toward the Miteirya ridge). The fighting for Tel el Eisa was costly, but by the afternoon the Australians seized control of this feature. That evening, the Australian 24th Brigade attacked Tel el Makh Khad with the tanks of the 50th Royal Tank Regiment in support. The tank unit had not been trained in close infantry support and failed to co-ordinate with the Australian infantry. The result was that the infantry and armour advanced independently and, having reached the objective, the 50th Royal Tank Regiment lost 23 tanks for lack of infantry support.
Once again, the 8th Army had failed to destroy Rommel’s forces, despite its overwhelming superiority in men and equipment. On the other hand, for Rommel the situation continued to be grave as, despite successful defensive operations, his infantry had suffered heavy losses and he reported that 'the situation is critical in the extreme'.
On 26/27 July, Auchinleck launched 'Manhood' in the northern sector in a final attempt to break the Axis forces. The XXX Corps was reinforced with the 1st Armoured Division (less the 22nd Armoured Brigade), Brigadier W. G. Carr’s 4th Light Armoured Brigade and Brigadier E. C. Cooke-Collis’s 69th Infantry Brigade. The plan was to break the Axis line to the south of the Miteirya ridge and exploit to the north-west. The South Africans were to make and mark a gap in the minefields to the south-east of the Miteirya ridge by 00.00 on 26/27 July. By 01.00 on 27 July, Godfrey’s Australian 24th Brigade was to have captured the eastern end of the Miteirya ridge and started to exploit toward the north-west. Cooke-Collis’s 69th Brigade would pass through the minefield gap created by the South Africans to Deir el Dhib and clear and mark gaps in further minefields. The 2nd Armoured Brigade would then pass through to El Wishka and would be followed by the 4th Light Armoured Brigade, which would attack the Axis lines of communication.
This was the third Allied attempt to break through in the northern sector, and the Axis defenders were expecting the attack.As had been the case in the previous attacks, 'Manhood' was hurriedly and therefore poorly planned. The Australian 24th Brigade managed to take its objectives on the Miteirya Ridge by 02.00 on 27 July. To the south, the British 69th Brigade set off at 01.30 and managed to take its objectives by about 08.00. However, the supporting anti-tank units became lost in the darkness or were delayed by minefields, leaving the attackers isolated and exposed when day dawned. There followed a period during which reports from the battlefront regarding the minefield gaps were confused and conflicting. As a consequence, the advance of 2nd Armoured Brigade was delayed. Rommel launched an immediate counterattack and the German armoured Kampfgruppen overran the two forward battalions of 69th Brigade. Meanwhile, the 50th Royal Tank Regiment supporting the Australians was having difficulty locating the minefield gaps made by the Australian 2/24th Battalion, failed to find a route through, and in the process was caught by heavy fire and lost 13 tanks. The unsupported Australian 2/28th Battalion on the ridge was overrun. The 69th Brigade suffered 600 casualties and the Australians 400 for no gain.
The 8th Army was by this moment totally exhausted, and on 31 July Auchinleck ordered an end to offensive operations and the strengthening of the defences to meet a major counter-offensive. Rommel was later to blame the failure to break through to the Nile river on how his army’s sources of supply had dried up. Rommel complained bitterly about the failure of important Italian convoys to get desperately needed tanks and supplies through to him, always blaming the Italian Comando Supremo but never suspecting the effects of British codebreaking.
The '1st Battle of El Alamein' had thus ended in a tactical, operational and strategic stalemate, but it had halted the Axis advance on Alexandria, and thence Cairo and ultimately the Suez Canal. The 8th Army had suffered more than 13,000 casualties in July, including 4,000 in the New Zealand 2nd Division, 3,000 in the Indian 5th Division and 2,552 in the Australian 9th Division, but had taken 7,000 prisoners and inflicted heavy damage on Axis men and machines. In his appreciation of 27 July, Auchinleck wrote that the 8th Army would not be ready to attack once more before the middle of September at the earliest. He believed that because Rommel understood that with the passage of time the Allied situation would only improve, he was compelled to attack as soon as possible and before the end of August when he would have superiority in armour. Auchinleck therefore made plans for a defensive battle.
Early in August, Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, and General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, visited Cairo on their way to meet Iosif Stalin, the Soviet leader, in Moscow. They decided to replace Auchinleck, appointing Gott, the XIII Corps' commander, to command the 8th Army and General Sir Harold Alexander to head the Middle East Command. Persia and Iraq were to be split from Middle East Command as a separate Persia and Iraq Command, and Auchinleck was offered the post of commander-in-chief, which he refused. Gott was killed on the way to take up his command when his aircraft was shot down. Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery was appointed in his place and assumed command on 13 August.