Operation Bacon

'Bacon' was a plan devised by General Sir Claude Auchinleck, commander of the 8th Army' in the middle phase of the '1st Battle of El Alamein', to destroy a significant portion of the Italian forces of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee 'Afrika' (14/16 July 1942).

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 the 'Bacon' plan to attack two Italian formations (Generale di Brigata Arturo Torriano’s17a Divisione fanteria 'Pavia' and Generale di Brigata Giacomo Lombardi’s 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. Brigadier R. Briggs’s British 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, Brigadier H. F. Fisher’s British 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 Oberst Eduard Crasemann’s 15th Panzerdivision's 8th Panzerregiment launched a counterattack against the 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 Generalleutnant Carl-Hans Lungershausen’s 90th leichte Division and Generale di Brigata Francesco Antonio Arena’s 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 Generalmajor Georg von Bismarck’s 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 the command of 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.