This was the British attack from Deir el Munassib in the defence line at El Alamein by Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division and Brigadier C. B. Robertson’s 132nd Brigade of Major General I. T. P. Hughes’s 44th Division during the Battle of Alam el Halfa (3/4 September 1942).
Lasting from 30 August to 6 September 1942, the Battle of Alam el Halfa was the last effort by Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ (from 1 October the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee) to defeat the British forces in north-western Egypt and so break through to Alexandria and the Suez Canal. Following on from the 1st Battle of El Alamein on 1/22 July of the same year, this was also the first battle which pitched Rommel against Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery, who had succeeded General Sir Claude Auchinleck in command of the British 8th Army on 13 August.
Faced with British-led forces growing steadily stronger as well as more battle-experienced, Rommel appreciated from a time in the middle of August that his Axis forces had to go over to the offensive once more, effectively and also quickly, before they were faced the increasingly real prospect of being overrun by an opponent becoming decisively superior in numbers and matériel.
Rommel had been able to motorise Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleemann’s 90th Afrikadivision, and had been reinforced with Oberst Carl-Hans Lungershausen’s (from 31 August Oberst Hermann Hans Hecker’s) 164th leichte Afrikadivision delivered by air, without its vehicles, from the island of Crete, where it had been created as Generalleutnant Josef Folttmann’s Festungsdivision ‘Kreta’. This was also the case with the airborne troops of Generalmajor Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke’s Fallschirmjägerbrigade ‘Ramcke’ and Generale di Divisione Enrico Frattini’s Italian 185th Division paracadutista ‘Folgore’.
After the event Rommel laid the blame for the failure of this last Axis offensive in North Africa on the fact that his forces were let down by the Italian Comando Supremo, which promised much but was able to deliver little largely as a result of the efforts of the British air and naval forces based on Malta. But it was not the Comando Supremo’s fault that the British island bastion of Malta had not been neutralised and then taken, which made it possible for the British 10th Submarine Flotilla to use Malta’s large harbour once more from the beginning of July and also to benefit more extensively from the intelligence with which it was supplied by the 'Ultra' decryption and intelligence-disseminating organisation. Thus the depredations of the submarines added to the destruction being wrought on Italian trans-Mediterranean supply convoys by the attack aircraft of the RAF operating from bases on the island and also benefitting from ‘Ultra’ information.
As a result, the Axis supplies lost in transit, which had been some 6% during July, increased to 25% of matériel and 41% of fuel during August.
Rommel also failed to admit even to himself the fact that his lines of communications had become very badly overstretched: it took motor vehicles seven days to cover the route between the front and Benghazi, with another five from Benghazi to reach Tripoli, which was the Axis forces’ primary port. Tobruk was moderately well placed to serve Rommel’s requirements, but its port was large enough to handle vessels up to a displacement of only 600 tons and it installations had, moreover, suffered very heavily in RAF bombing attacks.
This situation was attributable to Rommel alone, for despite the doubts of Maresciallo d’Italia Ettore Bastico (commander-in-chief, North Africa), Maresciallo d’Italia Ugo Cavallero (head of the Comando Supremo), and Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring (the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’), it was Rommel who had created the situation by exploiting his victories in pell-mell pursuit of the British-led forces.
At the front, Rommel’s plan included decoy movements by Generale di Corpo d’Armata Benvenuto Gioda’s Italian X Corps and Generale di Corpo d’Armata Enea Navarini’s XXI Corps reinforced by German elements. Thus, from north to south, the 164th leichte Afrikadivision, Generale di Divisione Carlo Gotti’s 102nd Divisione motorizzata ‘Trento’ and Generale di Divisione Alessandro Gloria’s 25th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Bologna’ would commit themselves to diversionary and secondary attacks to pin the British-led forces facing them.
These diversions were to begin at 02.00, giving Rommel the whole night to take his armoured formations, comprising General di Corpo d’Armata Giuseppe de Stefanis’s Italian XX Corps (Generale di Divisione Adolfo Infante’s 132nd Divisione corazzata ‘Ariete’, Generale di Divisione Gervasio Bitossi’s 133rd Divisione corazzata ‘Littorio’ and the 185th Divisione paracadutista) and General Walther Nehring’s Deutsches Afrikakorps (90th Afrikadivision, Generalleutnant Gustav von Vaerst’s] 15th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Carl-Hans von Lungershausen’s] 21st Panzerdivision), through the extreme south of the British forces’ line, and up to 32 miles (50 km) past their starting point. After this Rommel intended to regroup his armour and wheel it to the north, with the intention of reaching the Alexandria road behind the 8th Army, which would thus be cut off from its communications, caught on the retreat, and annihilated.
There would then be a triple pursuit: the Gruppe ‘von Bismarck’ (21st Panzerdivision and 164th leichte Afrikadivision) would make straight for Alexandria; the Deutsches Afrikakorps (15th Panzer Division and 90th Afrikadivision) would reach and cross the Nile river at Cairo and immediately head for the Suez Canal; and the XX Corps (132nd Divisione corazzata and 133rd Divisione corazzata) and Generale di Divisione Francesco La Ferla’s 101st Divisione motorizzata ‘Trieste’ would mop up any British resistance in the area of Wadi Natrun.
The plan was very typical of Rommel’s thinking, full of verve and audacity, but its basic features had by now been used so often that it was seen by the British commanders as Rommel’s standard concept. In fact both Montgomery and Auchinleck, the officer he superseded, had prepared their own plans on the assumption, supported by ‘Ultra’ intelligence, that Rommel would launch a deep eastward push into the extreme southern sector of the El Alamein position, followed by a rapid left wheel toward the Mediterranean coast.
When Montgomery assumed command on 13 August, the 8th Army was deployed in two corps. On the right, on the coast and blocking the way to Alexandria, was Lieutenant General W. H. C. Ramsden’s XXX Corps (Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Morshead’s Australian 9th Division, Major General D. H. Pienaar’s South African 1st Division and Major General H. R. Briggs’s Indian 5th Division). On the left, in the area through which the 8th Army expected Rommel to launch the main weight of his offensive, was Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s XIII Corps (Major General L. M. Inglis’s [from 16 August Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s] New Zealand 2nd Division in the line and Major General J. M. L. Renton’s [from 17 September Major General A. F. Harding’s] 7th Armoured Division) located farther to the south for the purpose of slowing Rommel’s initial push and then driving into his right flank as soon as he turned north.
These dispositions did not wholly satisfy Montgomery, who believed most importantly that the Alam el Halfa ridge was too lightly held. Montgomery therefore brought up Major General I. T. P. Hughes’s 44th Division, and also two armoured brigades of Major General A. H. Gatehouse’s 10th Armoured Division.
On 31 August the 8th Army had 712 serviceable tanks, including 164 examples of the obsolete Grant medium tank. Despite the reinforcements he had ordered to the front, Montgomery opted for an essentially defensive strategy. He thought that too often in the past the British tanks had been launched, either in inadequate numbers or too precipitately, into attacks or counterattacks which the tactically astute Rommel had carefully channelled to lead into the mouths of his excellent anti-tank artillery, which outranged the guns of the British tanks and, in the case of the larger-calibre weapons including the 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role anti-aircraft and anti-tank gun, could penetrate the armour of most British tanks with ease.
Montgomery had decided that the forthcoming battle would be essentially an artillery duel, with tank movements restricted to exceptional cases, so the 8th Army’s tank strength was for the most part dug in.
An element of cunning was brought into the operation by Montgomery’s chief-of-staff, Brigadier Francis de Guingand, who created a false map showing the condition of the tracks, the positions of the areas of soft sand unusable by vehicles, and the minefield positions for the XIII Corps’ sector. The next step was to fake an incident, in no man’s land, which would lead to the capture of this spurious document in a way which would not arouse Axis suspicion about its authenticity. Thus the map was left in the wreck of armoured car, and was both recovered and believed by the Axis command.
Rommel would have liked to attack during the full moon of 26 August, but steadily worsening supply difficulties required a postponement to the night of 30/31 August. At 02.00 on 31 August the Axis mechanised and motorised column reached the first British minefield with the Deutsches Afrikakorps in the lead, followed by the XX Corps and with the 90th Afrikadivision in the rear and maintaining touch with the right flank of the X Corps, which was holding the pivotal position in the Axis line. All in all there were 515 tanks, of which 234 were German and including 26 of the new mark of PzKpfw IV mounting a 75-mm (2.95-in) L/43 gun. The Deutsches Afrikakorps also had available 72 mobile 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role guns, but these were not used as a result of Montgomery’s decision for his tanks to be dug in as supplementary artillery.
By 03.00 on 31 August Rommel had come to the conclusion that matters were not proceeding with their customary smoothness. Attacked by the guns of the 7th Armoured Division and bombed by the aircraft of Air Vice Marshal A. Coningham’s Desert Air Force, some German tanks were also coming up against unmarked minefields and others were bogging down on routes that had been marked as perfectly usable. Rather than making a push of some 32 miles (50 km) through the British lines, therefore, the Axis mechanised and motorised force had covered only about 10 miles (16 km). Rommel decided that he would have to forego the left wheel he had planned for implementation only after the completion of a deep penetration, but appreciated that if his forces turned to the north now, after achieving only a shallow penetration, they would be moving toward the Alam el Halfa ridge, on whose higher elevations the XIII Corps was waiting with 64 batteries of artillery, 300 anti-tank guns and some 300 tanks.
Shortly after this, still worse news reached Rommel: von Bismarck, commanding the 21st Panzerdivision, had been killed by the explosion of a mine, and Nehring, commanding the Deutsches Afrikakorps, had been badly wounded in an air attack and replaced in the field by Oberst Fritz Bayerlein, Nehring’s chief-of-staff. In these circumstances, therefore, it is hardly surprising that the Deutsches Afrikakorps’ assault on Hill 132, the highest point of the Alam el Halfa ridge, was repulsed.
On the Deutsches Afrikakorps’ left, the XX Corps fared no better, a fact which was almost inevitable given the lightness of its armour, and the 90th Afrikadivision, in the pivotal position opposite the New Zealand 2nd Division, was badly affected by the severe wounding of its commander, Kleemann, in an air attack.
The RAF seemed to be universally present, and on 1 September Rommel himself almost suffered the same fate as Nehring and Kleemann. Moreover, and despite the assurances lavished on Rommel by Cavallero and Kesselring, the fuel vital to the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ was arriving ever more slowly and in ever decreasing quantities.
On the morning of 2 September, therefore, Rommel decided, almost inevitably, to withdraw his troops. In a signal to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the German commander sought to justify his decision to abandon the offensive by laying emphasis on his forces' lack of fuel, Allied air superiority and the loss of the element of surprise. During 2 September, the situation of the Axis forces continued to deteriorate. Armoured cars of the 4/8th Hussars (of the 4th Armoured Brigade) broke into the Axis supply echelons near Himeimat and attacked a group of 300 lorries, destroying 57 of them. As a result, Italian armoured units had to be moved to protect the supply lines and prevent further attacks.
In overall terms, though, 2 September was not a notably active day for either side, except in the air, in which the Desert Air Force flew 167 bomber and 501 fighter sorties. Montgomery realised that the Deutsches Afrikakorps was about to withdraw. He therefore devised the 'Beresford' offensive plan for 7th Armoured and 2nd New Zealand Divisions to attack the right and left flanks of the Axis mechanised and armoured forces' drive in the area of Deir el Munassib , though the two divisions were under strict instruction not to incur losses that would jeopardise further offensives.
While the 7th Armoured Division′s operation proceeded no further than harassment raids in the area to the south of Deir el Munassib, the New Zealand 2nd Division’s attack was more serious. It involved Brigadier H. Kippenberger’s experienced New Zealand 5th Brigade and Brigadier C. B. Robertson’s inexperienced British 132nd Brigade (under command from the 44th Division), with armoured support, to attack southward across the supply lines of the Deutsches Afrikakorps and isolate the Axis forces to the east of the Allied lines.
'Beresford' began at 22.30 on 3 September. The assault of the New Zealand 5th Brigade on the left of the attack from Alam Nayil inflicted heavy losses on the Italian defenders, and the New Zealanders beat off Axis counterattacks the next morning. But the attack of the 132nd Brigade was very poorly executed. The brigade arrived on its start line one hour late, by which time its opponents had been thoroughly roused by diversionary raids launched by Brigadier C. H. Clifton’s New Zealand 6th Brigade on the British brigade’s right flank. Robertson was wounded and Clifton was captured. The Valentine tanks of the 46th Royal Tank Regiment became lost in the darkness and entered a minefield, where 12 of them were put out of action. The 90th leichte Afrikadivision handled the 132nd Brigade very severely, with the result that this British unit suffered 697 casualties in addition to the 275 casualties suffered by the New Zealanders), without being able to prevent the escape of Rommel′s formations.
The determined nature of the Axis defence suggested to Freyberg that any renewal of attack was unlikely to fare any better, and he therefore suggested that the troops should be withdrawn from their very exposed positions and that ‘Beresford’ be called off. Montgomery and Horrocks agreed with Freyberg, and the troops were withdrawn on the night of 4 September.
Thus the Deutsches Afrikakorps was effectively allowed to retire, though it was further attacked by the Desert Air Force, which flew 957 sorties in 24 hours, and by 5 September the Axis formations and their subordinate units were back almost on their start lines and the Battle of Alam el Halfa was over. Preoccupied with his plans for a general offensive, Montgomery decided not to exploit the defensive success represented by the Battle of Alam el Halfa, which had cost the 8th Army 1,750 men and 67 tanks, while the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ had suffered 536 dead, 1,760 wounded and 569 missing, together with 49 tanks, 55 guns, and 395 trucks captured or destroyed. The British lost more tanks than the Axis forces, but for the first time in the North African campaign the British losses were not disproportionally greater. A significant factor often overlooked, however, is that British air harassment of the Axis forces; rear areas had cost the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ very substantial numbers of essentially irreplaceable transport vehicles.
The Battle of Alam el Halfa was the final major offensive undertaken by the Axis forces in the Desert War, and in the final analysis it was the superior firepower of the British-led forces and their air superiority which brought them victory.
There was a measure of criticism levelled at Montgomery′s leadership during the battle, especially his choices made to avoid losses, which prevented the British tank formations and units from inflicting decisive losses on the Deutsches Afrikakorps when it was stretched out between the minefields to the south of Deir el Munassib and and Alam Halfa ridge. Montgomery’s response was that the 8th Army was being rebuilt with the arrival of new and inexperienced elements and, as a result, was not yet ready to take the offensive. Nor can it be disputed that the 8th Army was still unprepared, in logistic terms, for a pursuit that eventually extended to 1,600 miles (2575 km). Moreover, Montgomery was determined not to let his own armour formations and units cripple themselves in the course of attacks vulnerable to the Germans' still potent anti-tank capability.
Thus his refusal to exploit his victory allowed Montgomery to preserve his forces and build his logistics for the decisive moment, which arrived late in October with the 2nd Battle of El Alamein.
Soon after the Battle of Alam el Halfa Rommel, whose health was poor, went on sick leave and was succeeded in command of the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ on 22 September by General Georg Stumme. On paying a visit to Adolf Hitler, Rommel was assured that the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ would soon be strengthened by the arrival of Generalleutnant Wolfgang Fischer’s 10th Panzerdivision, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s 1st SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ recently created in France, and Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller’s 22nd Luftlande-Division just arrived in Crete from Crimea. Hitler also promised Rommel additional strength in the form of a brigade of Nebelwerfer multi-barrel rocket launchers, and 40 PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks, which offered firepower and protection far in excess even the latest Allied tanks.
However, when Montgomery unleashed his ‘Lightfoot’ operation to start the 2nd Battle of El Alamein on 23 October, none of these manpower and weapon reinforcements had reached Rommel’s formations, while on the other side of the front line fresh troops and weapons were reaching the 8th Army at an ever-increasing rate. Early September saw the arrival in Egyptian ports of the 300 Sherman medium tanks and 100 105-mm (4.13-in) self-propelled guns whose delivery had been ordained by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This equipment could not be used immediately as sand filters had to be fitted to the engines, and the British crews had to be trained to get the best out of this US armour of types they had never seen before.
Almost simultaneously, two new formations from the UK arrived by sea at Suez to disembark as Major General D. N. Wimberley’s 51st Division, and Major General C. H. Gairdner’s 8th Armoured Division, which had only a short existence.
The Middle East air forces were also being built up at this time: four squadrons of North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers were delivered to Egyptian bases, while Vickers Wellington bomber and Fairey Albacore maritime attack units were cycled through a programme that retrained them for the land support role. The advantage in ‘flying artillery’ was thus passing ineluctably to the Allies, and came to play essentially the same vital role in the forthcoming 8th Army offensive as it had for the Germans at the time of their Blitzkrieg offensives early in the war.