Operation Battle of Alam el Halfa

The 'Battle of Alam el Halfa' was fought between the Axis forces of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee 'Afrika and the Allied forces of Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery’s British 8th Army to the south of El Alamein during the 'Western Desert Campaign' (30 August/5 September 1942).

Fought in the aftermath of the '1st Battle of El Alamein', the battle was the culmination of 'Brandung', which was the final major Axis offensive of the 'Western Desert Campaign', and in it Rommel intended to inflict a decisive defeat on the 8th Army before it was substantially and perhaps decisively reinforced in men and matériel by the arrival of Allied reinforcements.

Newly arrived as commander of the 8th Army, Montgomery knew of Axis intentions through 'Ultra' intelligence derived from signals intercepts and decryptions of German radio signals, and purposefully left a gap in the southern sector of the front, knowing that Rommel planned to attack there, and was thus in the position to deploy the bulk of his armour and artillery around Alam el Halfa ridge, some 20 miles (32 km) behind the front. Eschewing the tactics on which the British had relied in previous engagements, Montgomery ordered that the tanks were to be used as anti-tank guns, remaining in their defensive positions on the ridge. When the Axis attacks on the ridge failed and his forces ran short of supplies, Rommel ordered a withdrawal. Lieutenant General Sir Barnard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division undertook ' Beresford' against Italian positions, but this was a costly failure.

Montgomery did not exploit his defensive victory in the 'Battle of Alan el Halfa', preferring instead to continue his methodical enlargement of the 8th Army’s strength and capabilities for his autumn offensive, which developed as the '2nd Battle of El Alamein'. Rommel claimed that it was British air superiority which had determined the result, for he was unaware of 'Ultra'. Rommel sought to adapt to the increasing Allied air superiority by keeping his forces dispersed, but with their failure in the 'Battle of Alam el Halfa', the Axis forces in Africa lost the initiative and Axis strategic aims in Africa were no longer possible.

The scene was set for the 'Battle of Alam el Halfa' by the operational lull which followed the Axis failure in the '1st Battle of El Alamein' and the counterattacks by the 8th Army, which was then commanded by General Sir Claude Auchinleck, durinj July 1942. At El Alamein, the Axis supply position was precarious because the main supply ports of Benghazi and Tobruk were respectively 800 and 400 miles (1285 and 645 km) distant from the front, while the larger port of Tripoli 1,200 miles (1930 km) away to the west, was almost redundant because of its distance from the front. The original Axis plan for the 'Battle of Gazala' in June had been to capture the port of Tobruk, and then pause for six weeks on the Libyan/Egyptian frontier to prepare an invasion of Egypt toward Alexandria, and thence Cairo and the Suez Canal. The magnitude of the Axis victory in the 'Battle of Gazala' led Rommel to pursue the 8th Army in an effort to deny the Allies time to organise another defensive front to the west of Cairo and the Suez Canal. Axis air forces which had been allocated to 'Herkules', the planned airborne and amphibious invasion of the British island bastion of Malta, were diverted into Egypt.

The British forces in Malta were thus able to rebuild their strength and resume attacks on Axis supply convoys to North Africa. From the middle of August there was a significant increase in Axis losses at sea, notably from a reinforced Mediterranean submarine force. At the end of August, the Axis forces in North Africa had been reinforced by troops flown from Crete (Generalleutnant Josef Foltmann’s 164th leichte Afrikadivision, ex-Festungsdivision 'Kreta') but were still extremely short of supplies, most especially ammunition and fuel. There was a recovery in the armoured strength of the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' during August, the German tank strength rising from 133 to 234 operational vehicles and the number of Italian 'runners' increased from 96 to 281, of which 234 were medium tanks. The Luftwaffe’s strength increased from 210 to to 298 aircraft before the 'Battle of Gazala' and the number of Italian aircraft rose to 460.

General Sir Harold Alexander, the new commander-in-chief of the Middle East Command, could work on the basis of a short distance from the supply bases and ports in Egypt to the front line, but it still took a long time for supplies to arrive from the UK, the commonwealth and the USA. By the summer of 1942, equipment deliveries began to increase, notably of new M4 Sherman medium tanks from the USA and 6-pdr anti-tank guns from the UK to supplement the obsolete 2-pdr anti-tank gun. The Royal Air Force and associated air forces under command, bolstered by newly arrived US squadrons, maintained a considerable degree of air superiority. Sources of military intelligence were also integrated more effectively, and by the middle of August British and Allied forces were benefiting from more timely and better assessed information.

German intelligence had warned Rommel of the arrival of a 100,000-ton Allied convoy bringing new vehicles for the Allied forces in Egypt, and it was clear that the arrival of these reinforcements for the British would tilt the technical as well as the tactical and operational balance against the Axis. Rommel demanded from the Italian Comando Supremo in Rome 5,360 tons of fuel and 2,230 tons of ammunition before attacking at the end of the month, but by 29 August, more than half of the supply ships despatched from Italy had been sunk and only 1,340 tons of fuel had reached Tobruk. Rommel therefore had to gamble on a quick victory before the increasing power of the 8th Army made defeat inevitable. After Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring had agreed to lend some Luftwaffe fuel, Rommel had sufficient petrol for 150 miles (240 km) per vehicle with the troops and 250 miles (400 km) for other vehicles.

At El Alamein an attack by the Axis would have to pass between the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the northern edge of the Qattara depression about 40 miles (64 km) to the south and impassable for tanks. The 8th Army’s defences were quite strong, but Rommel believed that their southern end, between Munassib and Qaret el Himeimat, was held only lightly and not extensively mined. One account indicated that the northern and central sectors of the front were so strongly fortified that the southern stretch of 15 miles (24 km) between the New Zealand 'box', on the Alam Nayil ridge and the Qattara depression, was the only location in which an attack could succeed quickly. Since surprise in location was impossible, Rommel had to depend on achieving surprise by time and speed: by breaking through rapidly in the south, the Axis forces might be able to get astride the 8th Army’s supply routes, throw the British off balance and disorganise the defence.

Rommel therefore planned a night attack that was to be well beyond the 8th Army’s minefields before sunrise. In the north, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Ennea Navarini’s Italian XXI Corpo d’Armata, comprising the 102a Divisione motorizzata 'Trento' and the 25a Divisione fanteria 'Bologna', the 31o Battaglione Guastatori (sappers), the 164th leichte Afrikadivision and elements of Generalmajor Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke’s Fallschirmjägerbrigade 'Ramcke', was to conduct a frontal demonstration to fix the defenders. The main attack was to be led by Generalmajor Gustav von Vaerst’s 15th Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Georg von Bismarck’s 21st Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Ulrich Kleemann’s 90th Afrikadivision to the south, which would turn to the north once through the British minefields. Thus, Rommel believed, the 8th Army would be surrounded and destroyed, leaving the Axis forces with a promenade through Egypt to the Suez Canal.

British 'Ultra' decrypts had anticipated an Axis offensive, and Auchinleck set out the basic defensive plan with several contingencies for defensive works around Alexandria and Cairo in case the Axis armour succeeded in breaking through. On 13 August, command of the 8th Army passed to Montgomery who, after visiting the front, ordered that the contingency plans be destroyed and emphasised his intention to hold the ground around El Alamein at all costs. In the northern sector, just to the south of Ruweisat ridge to the coast, Lieutenant General W. H. E. Ramsden’s XXX Corps, comprising Major General L. J. 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, was deployed behind minefields.

Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s British XIII Corps held the ground to the south of the Ruweisat ridge. Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division was deployed on a 5-mile (8-km) front to the south of the ridge in the New Zealand box, which formed a corner to the main defences with its hinge of the higher ground at Alam Nayil. Since the featureless southern sector was difficult to defend against armoured attack, Montgomery chose to hold lightly the 12-mile (19-km) front from the New Zealand box to Qaret el Himeimat on the edge of the Qattara depression in order to encourage Rommel to take the bait and attack there. This gap would be mined and wired; Brigadier T. J. B. Bosville’s 7th Motor Brigade Group and Brigadier W. G. Carr’s 4th Light Armoured Brigade of Major General J. W. M. Renton’s 7th Armoured Division was to cover the minefields but withdraw when necessary.

The Axis attack would meet the main defensive positions when it swung to the north and approached the Alam el Halfa ridge, behind the 8th Army’s front. The bulk of the British medium tanks (in Brigadier G. P. B. Roberts’s 22nd Armoured Brigade) and anti-tank units were dug in to wait for the Axis attack. Behind the British armour, on the high ground to the north-east, were to be two brigades of Major General I. T. P. Hughes’s 44th Division and concentrations of divisional and corps artillery. Gatehouse’s 10th Armoured Division had been refitting in the Nile river delta with the Grant medium tank with the effective 75-mm (2.95-in) main gun, and was to reinforce the Alam el Halfa position when available. Most of Brigadier E. C. N. Custance’s 8th Armoured Brigade had arrived by 30 August and took position to manoeuvre on the left of Roberts’s 22nd Armoured Brigade and on the flank of the Axis forces' expected axis of advance. Once Montgomery had seen the Axis dispositions after the initial advance, he released Brigadier G. W. Richards’s 23rd Armoured Brigade, in XXX Corps reserve at the eastern end of the Ruweisat ridge, to the XIII Corps, attached to the 10th Armoured Division. By 13.00 on 31 August, 100 Valentine infantry tanks had moved to fill the gap between 22nd Armoured Brigade and the New Zealanders.

The attack began during the night of 30 August, taking advantage of a full moon. From the start, things went wrong for Rommel: the RAF spotted the Axis vehicle concentrations and unleashed several air attacks on them; Fairey Albacore single-engined biplane bombers of the Royal Navy dropped flares to illuminate targets for Vickers Wellington twin-engined medium bombers and the artillery; and the minefields that were thought to be thin turned out to be deep. The British units covering the minefields were the 7th Armoured Division’s 7th Motor Brigade and 4th Armoured Brigade, whose orders were to inflict maximum casualties before retiring. This they did, and the Axis losses began to climb. The losses included Nehring, commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, who was wounded in an air raid and succeeded by Oberst Fritz Bayerlein, Rommel’s chief-of-staff, until superseded by von Vaerst, and von Bismarck, commander of the 21st Panzerdivision, who was killed by a mine explosion and succeeded by Generalmajor Heinz von Randow.

Despite these difficulties, Rommel’s forces were through the minefields by 12.00 on 31 August, had wheeled left and were ready to make the main attack originally scheduled for 06.00. The late running of the planned schedule and the continued harassing flank attacks by the 7th Armoured Division had forced the Axis forces to turn to the north into Montgomery’s flank farther to the west than had originally been planned and directly toward the prepared defences on the Alam el Halfa ridge. At 13.00, the 15th Panzerdivision set off, followed an hour later by the 21st Panzerdivision. The Allied units holding the ridge were the British 22nd Armoured Brigade with 92 Grant medium tanks and 74 light tanks, supported by anti-tank units with 6-pdr guns and the artillery of the British 44th Division and the New Zealand 2nd Division.

The Axis forces had approximately 200 gun-armed tanks in the two Panzer divisions and 240 in the two Italian armoured divisions. The Italian tanks were mostly obsolete models, except for the Semovente da 75/18 self-propelled gun, which could defeat Allied medium tanks using HEAT ammunition capable of penetrating 70 mm (2.76 in) of armour at 55 yards (50 m). The Germans had 74 up-armoured PzKpfw III Ausf L medium tanks with long-barrelled 50-mm (1.97-in) guns, and 27 PzKpfw IV Ausf F2 battle tanks with long 75-mm (2.95-in) guns. The British had 700 tanks at the front, of which 160 were Grant machines, but only 500 of the British tanks were engaged in the armoured battle, which was brief.

As the Panzer divisions approached the ridge, the PzKpfw IV F2 tanks opened fire at long range and destroyed several British tanks. The Grant was tactically handicapped by the position of its main gun, which was located in a sponson on the right-hand side of the hull, which limited its traverse angle and also prevented firing from a hull-down position. When the Germans came into range, however, they were exposed to the fire of the brigade and their tanks were hard hit. 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 consumption over the bad 'going', von Vaerst ordered the German armour to pull back. During this engagement, the Germans lost 22 tanks and the British 21.

There had also been hard infantry fighting. In the central sector, the Italians of 25a Divisione fanteria 'Bologna' and the German 433rd Infanterieregiment attacked several Indian, South African and New Zealand units on Ruweisat Ridge, and managed to capture Point 211 but were later driven off by a counterattack.

The night of 31 August/1 September brought no respite for the Axis forces, as the Albacore and Wellington bombers returned to the attack, concentrating on the Axis supply lines. This added to Rommel’s supply difficulties as Allied action had sunk more than half of the 5,000 tons of petrol promised by Mussolini. On 1 September the 21st Panzerdivision was inactive, probably for lack of fuel, and operations were limited to an attack by the 15th Panzerdivision toward the 22nd Armoured Brigade’s eastern flank. The attack began at dawn but was quickly stopped by a flank attack delivered by Custance’s 8th Armoured Brigade. The Germans suffered little, as the British were under orders to spare their own tanks for the coming offensive, but they too could make no headway and were heavily shelled. Generale di Divisione corazzata 'Ariete' and Generale di Divisione Gervasio Bitossi’s 133a Divisione corazzata 'Littorio', which were two of the three Italian armoured divisions in Generale di Divisione Giuseppe di Stefanis’s XX Corpo d’Armata motorizzato, had moved up on the left of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, and the 90th leichte Afrikadivision and elements of Generale di Corpo d’Armata Edoardo Nebbia’s X Corpo d’Armata had come forward to face the southern flank of the New Zealand box. Allied air raids continued throughout the day and night, and on the morning of 2 September, realising his offensive had failed and that staying in the salient would only add to his losses, Rommel decided to withdraw.

In a message to Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, Rommel justified his decision to abandon the offensive by the lack of fuel, Allied air superiority and the loss of surprise.

On 2 September, armoured cars of the 4th Armoured Brigade’s 4/8th Hussars attacked 300 Axis supply trucks near Himeimat, destroying 57 of them, and Italian armoured units had to be moved to protect the Axis supply lines. In the air the Western Desert Air Force flew 167 bomber and 501 fighter sorties. Montgomery realised that the Deutsches Afrika Korps was about to withdraw and planned attacks by the 7th Armoured Division and the New Zealand 2nd Division, which were under orders that they were to avoid excessive losses. The 7th Armoured Division managed harassment raids but the New Zealand 2nd Division attacked with Brigadier H. K. Kippenberger’s experienced New Zealand 5th Brigade, Brigadier C. B. Robertson’s new 132nd Brigade of the 44th Division under command and tank support from the 46th Royal Tank Regiment of the 23rd Army Tank Brigade.

The resulting 'Beresford' began at 22.30 on 3 September. The New Zealand 5th Brigade on the left inflicted many casualties on the Italian defenders and defeated Axis counterattacks during the morning of the following day. The Axis defenders were alerted by diversionary raids by Brigadier C. Clifton’s New Zealand 6th Brigade on the right flank of the 132nd Brigade, which was an hour late arriving on the start line. The attack was a costly failure: the Valentine infantry tanks of the 46th Royal Tank Regiment became lost in the dark and penetrated into a minefield where 12 of the tanks were knocked out. The 90th leichte Afrikadivision inflicted 697 casualties on the 132nd Brigade and 275 casualties on the New Zealanders. Robertson was wounded and Clifton was captured by a patrol of the 10o Battaglione of Generale di Divisione Enrico Frattini’s 185a Divisione fanteria 'Folgore' of the X Corpo d’Armata. The vigorous Axis defence suggested to Freyberg that another attack was unlikely to succeed, and 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.

On 5 September, the position to the north of the New Zealand 2nd Division was held by the Indian 5th Division, relieved by the Indian 4th Division on 9 September. After this failure against the 185a Divisione fanteria 'Folgore', the Deutsches Afrika Korps retired unhindered except by attacks of the Western Desert Air Force, which flew 957 sorties in 24 hours. By 5 September, the Axis units were back almost on their starting positions and the 'Battle of Alan el Halfa' was over.

During the 'Battle of Alam el Halfa', the Allies had suffered 1,750 casualties, compared with 2,930 for the Axis. The Allies lost more tanks than the Axis, but for the first time in the 'Western Desert Campaign' there was no great disproportion in the two sides' tank losses, and the constant harassment from the air cost the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' many transport vehicles. The battle was the last major offensive undertaken by the Axis in North Africa and the superior firepower of the Allies and their mastery of the skies brought them victory. There has been criticism of Montgomery’s leadership during the battle, especially his decision to avoid losses, which prevented the British tank formations from trying to destroy the Deutsches Afrika Korps when it was strung out between the minefields and the Alam el Halfa ridge. Montgomery pointed out that the 8th Army was in a process of re-formation with the arrival of new, untrained units, and was therefore not ready to take the offensive. Nor was his army yet prepared for a 1,600-mile (2575-km) pursuit had it managed to break through, which had caused both sides to fail to bring the 'Western Desert Campaign' to an end after gaining tactical success. Montgomery did not want his tanks wasted on futile attacks against Rommel’s anti-tank screen, as had frequently occurred in the past, and thereby handing the initiative back to the Axis forces: Rommel in fact complained to Kesselring that 'The swine isn’t attacking!' Montgomery’s refusal kept his forces intact and the 8th Army accumulated supplies for the October offensive that came to be known as the '2nd Battle of El Alamein'.