This was the British attempt by General Sir Claude Auchinleck’s 8th Army to take the Miteirya Ridge, to the south-west of El Alamein, from the Axis forces of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ as the last stage of the 1st Battle of El Alamein (26/27 July 1942).
Fought in the period between 1 and 27 July 1942, the 1st Battle of El Alamein followed the defeat of the British and commonwealth forces in 'Venezia', otherwise the Battle of Gazala, during June 1942. In the aftermath of this defeat, the 8th Army had retreated to the east into north-western Egypt as far as Mersa Matruh, about 100 miles (160 km) inside the border with Libya. Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie, currently the commander of the 8th Army, had decided not to attempt to hold the defences on the Egyptian border as this would have required the infantry holding defended localities, while a strong armoured force was held back in reserve to foil any attempts to penetrate or outflank the fixed defences: as the 8th Army had almost no armoured units left fit to fight, the infantry positions would therefore have been defeated in detail. The original plan to hold at Mersa Matruh also included an armoured reserve, but in the absence of such a reserve, Ritchie believed he could organise his infantry to cover the minefields between the defended localities to prevent Axis engineers from gaining undisturbed access.
To defend the Mersa Matruh line, Ritchie placed Major General J. S. Nichols’s Indian 10th Division in Mersa Matruh itself and Major General W. H. C. Ramsden’s 50th Division some 15 miles (24 km) farther to the east along the coast at Gerawla under the command of Lieutenant General W. G. Holmes’s X Corps, whose headquarters was newly arrived from Syria. Inland of the X Corps was Lieutenant General W. H. E. Gott’s XIII Corps with Major General H. R. Briggs’s Indian 5th Division (with only Brigadier D. W. Reid’s Indian 29th Brigade and two regiments of artillery) around Sidi Hamza about 20 miles (32 km) inland, and Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s newly arrived New Zealand 2nd Division (less Brigadier G. H. Clifton’s New Zealand 6th Brigade, which had been left out of combat in case the division was captured and would could therefore become the core of a new division) at Minqar Qaim on the escarpment 30 miles (48 km) inland, and Major General H. Lumsden’s 1st Armoured Division in the open desert to the south. This last formation had taken over Brigadier A. H. Gatehouse’s (from 26 June Brigadier A. F. Fisher’s) 4th Armoured Brigade and Brigadier W. G. Carr’s 22nd Armoured Brigades from Major General J. M. L. Renton’s 7th Armoured Division, and which by this time had only three tank regiments between them.
On 25 June Auchinleck, the commander-in-chief Middle East Command, relieved Ritchie and assumed direct command of the 8th Army. Auchinleck decided not to seek any form of decisive confrontation on the Mersa Matruh position as he had concluded that the 8th Army’s inferiority in armour after the defeat at Gazala meant it could not prevent Rommel either breaking through its centre or enveloping its open left flank to the south in the fashion he had employed at Gazala: this conclusion was based on the assessment at general headquarters in Cairo that Rommel could possibly have as many as 520 serviceable tanks, but more probably 340 (in actuality it was 105) at a time when the 8th Army had 155 tanks. Auchinleck decided instead to adopt delaying tactics as the 8th Army fell back another 100 miles (160 km) or more to the east to a more defensible position near El Alamein. Only 40 mi (65 km) to the south of El Alamein, the steep slopes of the Qattara Depression ruled out the possibility of Axis armour moving around the southern flank of his defences and limited the width of the front he had to defend.
While preparing the defences at El Alamein, Auchinleck fought strong delaying actions, first at Mersa Matruh on 26/27 June and then Fuka on 28 June. The late change of orders resulted in some confusion in the two forward formations, the X Corps and XIII Corps, between the desire to inflict damage on the Axis forces and the need not to become trapped in the Mersa Matruh but retreat in good order. The result was poor co-ordination between the two forward corps and their subordinate formations.
Late on 26 June, in 'Aïda', Generalmajor Ulrich Kleemann’s 90th leichte Division and Generalmajor Georg von Bismarck’s 21st Panzerdivision worked their way through the minefields in the centre of the British front. Early on 27 June, resuming its advance, the 90th leichte Division was checked by the artillery of the 50th Division. Meanwhile, Oberst Eduard Crasemann’s 15th Panzerdivision and the 21st Panzerdivision advanced to the east above and below the escarpment to the south of Mersa Matruh. The 15th Panzerdivision was blocked by the 4th Armoured Brigade and Brigadier the Viscount Garmoyle’s 7th Motor Brigade, but the 21st Panzerdivision was ordered to persevere and attack Minqar Qaim. Rommel ordered the 90th leichte Division to resume its advance and cut the coast road behind the 50th Division by the evening.
As the 21st Panzerdivision advanced on Minqar Qaim, the New Zealand 2nd Division found itself surrounded but succeeded in breaking out during the night of 27 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 ordered a withdrawal to Fuka. Confusion in communication led the division withdrawing immediately to the El Alamein position.
Meanwhile, after an unsuccessful attempt to secure a position on the escarpment, the X Corps was out of touch with the 8th Army between 19.30 and 04.30 in the early morning of the next day. Only then did the corps learn 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 Matruh, and its line of retreat was compromised by the cutting of the coast road some 17 mi (27 km) to the east of 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 the formation was in no position to do so. At 21.00 on 28 June, the X Corps headed to the south in brigade groups, but there was considerable confusion in the darkness and the brigade groups stumbled upon Axis units leaguered for the night. The Indian 5th Division in particular suffered heavy losses, including the destruction of Reid’s Indian 29th Brigade at Fuka.
The Axis forces took more than 6,000 prisoners, 40 tanks and an very substantial quantity of supplies.
El Alamein was in itself nothing but an insignificant station on the coastal railway line. Some 10 mi (16 km) to its south lies the Ruweisat Ridge, a rocky ridge whose insignificant height nonetheless offered excellent observation for many miles over the surrounding desert. Another 20 miles (32 km) to the south of the Ruweisat Ridge lies the northern edge of the Qattara Depression. The line which the British chose to defend extended between the coast and the Qattara Depression, which meant that any Axis effort to outflank it would require a very long and arduous detour to the south across the Sahara desert. The British had appreciated the basic strength of the position before the war, and had begun the construction of several 'boxes' as bunkered and entrenched locations surrounded by barbed wire entanglements and minefields: the best developed of these was that round the railway station at El Alamein. In June 1942, though, most of the defensive 'line' was still just open and empty desert.
Lieutenant General C. W. M. Norrie, commanding the XXX Corps, now organised the position and ordered the construction of three defended 'boxes'. The first and strongest of these, at El Alamein on the coast, had been partly wired and mined by Major General D. H. Pienaar’s South African 1at Division. The Bab el Qattara 'box', located 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 not wired or mined, while that at the Naq Abu Dweis on the edge of the Qattara Depression, some 34 miles (55 km) from the coast, had hardly been started.
The British position in Egypt was currently in a very critical state. The rout at Mersa Matruh had created what was little short of panic in the British headquarters at Cairo, something later called "the Flap". On what came to be referred and staff at British headquarters, in rear-echelon units and at the embassy burned confidential papers in anticipation of the entry of Axis troops into the city. Although he believed that he could still stop Rommel at El Alamein, Auchinleck felt that he could not ignore the possibility that the 8th Army might once again be outmanoeuvred or outfought and therefore believed that, in order to maintain his army’s survival and a fighting entity, he had to plan for the possibility of a further retreat while maintaining morale and retaining the support and co-operation of the Egyptians. Defensive positions were built to the west of Alexandria and on the approaches to Cairo, and considerable areas in the Nile delta were flooded.
The Axis, too, believed that the capture of Egypt was imminent and the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, sensing the approach of a historic moment, flew to Libya and arrived at the Comando Supremo headquarters in Cyrenaica to prepare for what he believed would be his triumphal entry to Cairo.
The effective disintergation of the X Corps at Mersa Matruh disrupted Auchinleck’s plan for the occupation of the defences at El Alamein. On 29 June he ordered the XXX Corps (South African 1st Division, and Indian 5th and 10th Divisions) to move into the northern sector of the front along the coast, and the XIII Corps (New Zealand and Indian 5th Divisions) into southern sector, with what was left of the 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions held back as a mobile reserve under army command. Auchinleck intended that the fixed defences would serve to channel and disorganise the Axis advance while mobile units would attack its flanks and rear.
On 30 June, Rommel’s Panzerarmee 'Afrika' approached the El Alamein defences from the west. The Axis formation was now both physically exhausted and numerically well below strength. Rommel had driven his army forward with a single-minded ruthlessness in the confidence that if the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' fell on the 8th Army before this latter could settle, its offensive momentum would allow it to punch through the El Alamein position and open the way for an advance to Alexandria, Cairo and the Nile river with little further opposition. The German and Italian logistic situation remained a major problem because the Axis staff had originally expected a pause of six weeks after the capture of Tobruk on 21 June. Moreover, the supporting German air units were also exhausted and able to provide only little help against the RAF’s all-out attack on the Axis supply lines. With the arrival of US heavy bombers the Allied attacks on the Axis lines of communication and supply could reach as far to the west as the port of Benghazi on the eastern side of the Gulf of Sirte in western Cyrenaica. Captured supplies proved useful, of course, but water and ammunition were constantly in short supply, and the ever present shortage of transport impeded the distribution of those supplies which the Axis forces did have.
Rommel’s plan for the breakthrough he intended to make at El Alamein was for the 90th leichte Division, commanded from 13 July by Generalmajor Carl-Hans Lungershausen, and the 15th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision of Generalleutnant Walther Nehring’s Deutches Afrikakorps to punch through the 8th Army’s line between the El Alamein box and Deir el Abyad, which he believed was defended. The 90th leichte Division was then to wheel to the north and sever the coastal road, so trapping the defenders of the El Alamein box, which Rommel believed to be held by the remnants of the 50th Division, and the Deutches Afrikakorps was then to veer to the right to fall on the rear of the XIII Corps. A division of Generale di Corpo d’Armata Enea Navarini’s Italian XXI Corps was to attack the El Alamein box from the west and another was to follow the 90th leichte Division. Generale di Corpo d’Armata Giuseppe de Stefanis’s Italian XX Corps was to follow the Deutches Afrikakorps and deal with the box on the edge of the Qattara Depression while Generale di Divisione Gervasio Bitossi’s Italian 133th Divisione corrazzata 'Littorio' and German reconnaissance units protected the right flank.
Rommel had planned to attack on 30 June, but logistic difficulties had resulted in a day’s delay, vital to the defending forces reorganising 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 could not move for lack of fuel, and the promised air support elements had yet to move to the advance airfields from which they could deliver effective short-range and therefore timely aid.
In overall terms, at this time the 8th Army had 150,000 men in three corps (seven infantry and three armoured divisions) with 1,114 tanks and more than 1,000 pieces of artillery, supported by more than 1,500 aircraft, while the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ had 96,000 men (40,000 German and 56,000 Italian) in eight infantry and four armoured divisions (two German and two Italian) and 585 tanks (of which most were Italian), supported by fewer than 500 aircraft. Auchinleck assumed command of the 8th Army on 25 June, the eve of Rommel’s assault on Mersa Matruh, which the British had hoped to hold as the German and Italian forces swept to the east after their success in the Battle of Gazala and capture of Tobruk.
For 72 hours after Auchinleck had taken command of it, the remnants of the 8th Army had been in full retreat to the east with the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ in pursuit. On the evening of 28 June the leading Axis forces were at Fuka, and the next important British position lay at El Alamein, which was merely a partially prepared defensive line extending, at noted above, between El Alamein on the south coast of the Mediterranean Sea some 40 miles (65 km) to the south on the northern edge of the Qattara Depression. The line was occupied by a small number of defenders, and toward it were falling back, in considerable disarray, the survivors from Mersa Matruh, including Lieutenant General W. G. Holmes’s X Corps, which had been almost wholly overwhelmed.
In the evening of the same day, Auchinleck sent to London a revised appreciation based on the assumption that the Axis forces were superior in armour and were planning to advance on the great port city of Alexandria and the delta of the Nile river to its east. The seizure of Alexandria would greatly ease Rommel’s supply problem, and must at all costs be prevented. Auchinleck reported that the 8th Army would offer all the resistance it could at Fuka and then at the El Alamein position, but the Fuka ‘front’ to which Auchinleck had alluded had already been penetrated.
On 28 June few would have thought it feasible for the 8th Army to halt Rommel at El Alamein, but Auchinleck intended to pursue his original intentions for a decisive battle in that position. El Alamein need not necessarily have been the final defence of the British position in Egypt, but a stand for as long as possible at El Alamein seemed inevitable, for Major General Sir Leslie Morshead’s Australian 9th Division, in transit from Syria, could not reach Alexandria before 1 July, so until that date there could be no effective defence of Alexandria unless Norrie’s XXX Corps, supported on its left by Gott’s XIII Corps, could check the Axis advance at El Alamein.
Early on 29 June Rommel launched Kleemann’s 90th leichte Division (from 26 July the 90th Afrikadivision) to the east in the direction of Daaba, the Italian formations of the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ being instructed to follow. On the British side, Lumsden’s 1st Armoured Division, well south of Fuka and effectively separated from the rest of the 8th Army, did what it could to protect the scattered fugitives of Holmes’s X Corps who had evaded capture at Fuka. Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division was reorganising itself at Bab el Qattara, and farther to the south, isolated in the unfinished and waterless box’at Naqb Abu Dweis was the revitalised Indian 5th Brigade. In the area of El Alamein, the XXX Corps had Pienaar’s South African 1st Division and Brigadier R. G. Lochner’s Indian 18th Brigade Group, just arrived from Iraq. Thus, with only two operative infantry divisions and a troubled armoured division, now weak in M3 Grant medium tanks, Auchinleck set out to occupy and hold the ‘Alamein Line’.
The frontage to be covered was some 30 miles (48 km), and of the two main lines of advance available to the Axis forces, one lay at the extreme north along the coast, and the other in the extreme south via the ‘Barrel Track’ to Wadi Natrun and thence to Cairo. Auchinleck ordered the XXX Corps to cover the northern route, absorbing whatever units of Ramsden’s 50th Division and Nichols’s Indian 10th Division could quickly be readied for action. The 1st Armoured Division was to move into the area to the south of El Alamein. Gott’s XIII Corps was to cover the southern route, and be prepared to support the XXX Corps to its north if it was this formation which was attacked first.
In overall terms, Auchinleck had to rely on mobility rather than numbers to fill the gap between El Alamein and the Qattara Depression. On the front of the XXX Corps, the South African 1st Division had been allocated the task of holding the El Alamein box, which had been planned as a defensive position but was as yet incomplete: this backed onto the sea, and comprised a 15-mile (24-km) semi-circular perimeter of company and platoon posts astride the coast road and the railway; among the work still to be completed was the erection of barbed wire entanglements and the laying of mines. The main failings of this box were its small size and the ease with which it could be bypassed and thus isolated by an Axis advance round its southern edge to cut the road and rail links to the east. To deter thus, Norrie selected a position 7 miles (11.25 km) farther to the south at Deir el Shein, on the western end of the Ruweisat Ridge, for occupation on 28 June by Brigadier R. G. Lochner’s Indian 18th Brigade Group supported by the guns of the 97th and 121st Field Regiments and an infantry anti-tank platoon newly armed with the excellent 6-pdr (57-mm) anti-tank gun. The ground was rocky, wire and anti-tank mines were scarce, and this position could also be bypassed to the south.
Auchinleck concentrated on redeploying the South African 1st Division, banking on the fact that Rommel would bypass the El Alamein locality rather than waste time, men and matériel on attacking it. The South Africans, possessing an infantry strength of only 3,000, were instructed to leave Brigadier H. G. Klopper’s 3rd Motorised Brigade Group inside the box to defend its western face, while the two other motorised brigade groups and their artillery were disposed outside the box to the south: Brigadier J. P. A. Furstenberg’s 1st Motorised Brigade Group was positioned on the northern slope of the Ruweisat Ridge, 5 miles (8 km) to the south of the box’s perimeter and 5 miles (8 km) to the west-south-west of its companion, and Brigadier C. L. du Toit’s 2nd Motorised Brigade Group lay some 31 miles (50 km) to the south-east of the El Alamein perimeter. Thus any Axis attempt to bypass the El Alamein box would run into a defence in depth between Deir el Shein and Alam el Onsol, with artillery fire plunging into its left flank from the area round El Alamein. If the Axis forces turned closer in, to the north, they would be taken under concentric fire from all these localities.
To the ‘box-minded’ 8th Army, these dispositions marked the advent of a new tactical concept. But to Auchinleck and Major General E. E. Dorman-Smith, now Auchinleck’s director of operations as well as his informal chief-of-staff, they were changes which had been demanded by the current tactical situation. During the first half of 1942 the German qualitative superiority in tank and anti-tank artillery, as a result of the obsolescence of the current British 2-pdr (40-mm) gun together with the non-motorised and therefore relatively immobile nature of the British infantry divisions, had limited the tactical options available to the British. The British infantry formations also lacked adequately defence against armoured attack and had therefore to rely on mine defences, but this left them further liable to encirclement. In theory this problem was solvable by the correct use of the British armoured divisions to defeat the Axis forces’ mobile and armoured attacks, but in practice the British armoured formations were incapable of effecting such a defeat. Moreover, although the British forces’ army tank brigades were designed for direct co-operation with infantry formations, the tactical doctrine upon which British armoured divisions were trained envisaged combat with the opposing armour in mobile tank-versus-tank combat remote from the infantry battle, in which the armour did not normally become involved.
The Germans made no such distinctions: armour, mechanised and motorised infantry, and artillery (especially anti-tank guns) operated as one in attack and defence, the Germans having a potent edge in their 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-purpose anti-aircraft and anti-tank gun, which while tall as a result of its anti-aircraft origins was nonetheless capable of destroying British tanks at ranges well outside that of the British armour’s own guns.
Besides all this, the British Crusader tank was unreliable and prone to catching fire when hit: only when useful quantities of the M3 Grant medium tank and 6-pdr anti-tank gun arrived from the USA and UK respectively was it possible for the British infantry and armour fight the Axis forces on qualitatively equal terms.
German air/ground co-operation was also distinctly superior in qualitative if not quantitative terms.
Moreover, the British command system, at all levels from brigade to army, lacked both the professional competence and operational experience of its German equivalent.
On the credit side British field artillery was effective, but there was never enough of it and much of that which was available had perforce to be used in an anti-tank role for which it had not been designed.
Of the Axis troops, the Italian element in the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ had only limited capability, and Rommel was normally careful to employ it only in a containing role where it could be kept out of trouble.
By the fall of darkness on 29 June, the 90th leichte Division had reached Sidi Abd el Rahman, and Nehring’s Deutsches Afrikakorps (Crasemann’s 15th Panzerdivision and von Bismarck’s 21st Panzerdivision) had halted near El Quseir. de Stefanis’s Italian XX Corps was farther to the west, and Navarini’s Italian XXI and Generale di Corpo d’Armata Benvenuto Gioda’s Italian X Corps were on the coast road between Daaba and Matruh. With this disposition of the forces available to him under the nominal leadership of Maresciallo d’Italia Ettore Bastico, the Axis supreme commander in North Africa, Rommel had available to him the option of continuing the Axis advance to Alexandria or alternatively to Cairo.
To the south-west of Daaba the 1st Armoured Division and Garmoyle’s 7th Motor Brigade Group moved early on 30 June to a position between Italian formations on the coast road and Deutsches Afrikakorps to the south-east. The 7th Motor Brigade Group checked the Italian XX Corps and also ambushed an Axis column on the road some miles to the west of Daaba. The British armour next clashed, in the area to the south of Daaba, with Bitossi’s Italian 133rd Divisione corazzata and in the afternoon again met the Axis forces in the form of part of the 21st Panzerdivision, which was greatly surprised to be attacked from what had had been presumed to be the friendly west, but a heavy sandstorm ended the fighting. At the fall of night Fisher’s 4th Armoured Brigade stopped at Tell el Aqqaqir, among the Axis positions, and Carr’s 22nd Armoured Brigade halted south of the El Alamein defences.
The 1st Armoured Division mustered some 36 Grant medium, 60 Stuart light, 12 Valentine infantry and eight Crusader cruiser tanks.
Auchinleck’s first ‘order of the day’ suggested that the Axis threat was more bluff than reality, and did not impress the higher British and commonwealth command elements. Gott was further perturbed by a note from Lieutenant General T. W. Corbett, Auchinleck’s chief-of-staff, which appeared to imply that Egypt might have to be abandoned, and Gott thoughtlessly passed this mistaken information to Freyberg, adding quite erroneously that whoever else wanted to fight, the South Africans did not. Pienaar openly faulted Auchinleck’s decision to fight to the west of the water line on which the 8th Army was largely dependent, and this opinion was shared by Général de Division René Marie Edgar de Larminat, commanding the Free French forces in the Western Desert. In closer touch with his commander, Norrie was calmly confident, but one of Auchinleck’s problems early in July was how to re-establish confidence among the senior ranks.
On the other side of the front, confidence of success was evident in the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’, despite the fact that the Deutsches Afrikakorps had a mere 55 tanks and 500 infantry, while the 90th leichte Division had only about 1,500 infantrymen. The German artillery, including some captured British 25-pdr weapons, totalled 300, of which a mere 29 were the feared 88-mm (3.465-in) weapons. The strength of the three Italian corps was only 5,500 infantry, 30 tanks, and 200 pieces of artillery including a small proportion of 88-mm (3.465-mm) weapons. Yet with this very small force Rommel proposed to push aside what he wrongly believed to be the battered remains of the X Corps holding the El Alamein strongpoint and Deir el Abyad, 10 miles (16 km) to the south-west.
Rommel assessed that the 8th Army’s main strength, the infantry and armour of the XIII Corps, covered the route to Cairo, 15 miles (24 km) to the south of his intended blow against El Alamein, and the threat created by the move of the Deutsches Afrikakorps to El Quseir would hold the British armour in the south until it was too late for it to intervene. By night the Deutsches Afrikakorps would move to Tell el Aqqaqir and from there, early on 1 July, to the south via Alam Nayil against the rear of the XIII Corps. For the 90th leichte Division, Rommel envisaged a reprise of the role the division had played so successfully at Mersa Matruh: the division would move to the south of the El Alamein box and cut the coast road well east of that place. Meanwhile the XXI Corps would contain the box from the west, the X Corps would encircle and attack the box presumed to be at Deir el Abyad, and the XX Corps would provide flank protection. The entire operation was scheduled to start at 03.00 hours on 1 July, although it was realised that the Deutsches Afrikakorps would probably be late in jumping off. The plan was made without reconnaissance of the British and commonwealth positions, and based on false premises as to the degree of resistance to be expected.
During 30 June, a succession of British units arrived from Mersa Matruh, until some three-fifths of the X Corps had been accounted for. Artillery in particular, if capable of further action, was grouped into ‘artillery columns’. But, at first light on 1 July, there was still no contact with the headquarters of the 1st Armoured Division, on which so much depended, so the 1st Battle of El Alamein would begin, on the British side, without the benefit of armour.
Rommel’s concept of the British and commonwealth situation led him to expect that, by evening of 1 July, the weak and disorganised remains of the X Corps about El Alamein would have been bypassed and overrun, and that his leading troops would be well on their way to Alexandria. He knew that he was driving his forces to the point of exhaustion, if not beyond it, but that this would be their final effort.
The 90th leichte Division moved off on time, went too far to the north, collided with the defences, and was pinned by defensive fire. A tired Deutsches Afrikakorps left its assembly area at 06.45, some four hours late, after being heavily bombed, but then found Deir el Abyad to be empty, though by 09.00 the 15th Panzerdivision had met the Indian 18th Brigade Group’s defences at Deir el Shein. The 21st Panzerdivision moved to the north-east of Deir el Shein, and the Deutsches Afrikakorps halted to reconnoitre and refuel.
At 12.00, under cover of a sandstorm, the 90th leichte Division broke contact with the defences on the south-western edge of the El Alamein box to resume its encircling move until coming under heavy artillery, mortar and machine gun fire farther to the east. Forced to halt, the leading German infantry showed signs of panic. However, covered by the sandstorm, the Deutsches Afrikakorps attacked Deir el Shein at 12.00, broke through the perimeter at about 13.00, and fought to overcome the resistance of artillery and tanks.
Satisfied to the point of elation, Rommel ordered the pursuit to begin early in the afternoon, and while 90th leichte Division and XXI Corps cleaned up resistance at El Alamein, the XX Corps (Generale di Divisione Francesco Arena’s [later Generale di Divisione Adolfo Infante’s] 132nd Divisione corazzata ‘Ariete’ and Generale di Brigata Arnaldo Azzi’s 101st Divisione motorizzata ‘Trieste’) and Bitossi’s 133rd Division corazzata were ordered to advance via Hamman, to El Amiriya, which was the gateway to Alexandria.
The situation was thus developing as Auchinleck anticipated, and had the 1st Armoured Division been ready for action all would have been nicely balanced. But early on 1 July, the 22nd Armoured Brigade, with 28 tanks (10 on tow), had moved south-east of Alam el Onsol, and the 4th Armoured Brigade, leaving Tell el Aqqaqir at dawn as if to provide the space needed by the Deutsches Afrikakorps, almost led the 90th leichte Division’s opening attack on the El Alamein defences, and indeed received fire from the El Alamein box. The brigade then moved into deep sand near Alam el Onsol, and it was only in the later part of the afternoon that the brigade finally extricated itself from this trap.
The sandstorm inhibited the British defence. It was known that Deir el Shein was under attack and at about 13.30 the XXX Corps ordered the 1st Armoured Division to its help with the 18 tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade which were still running, but while undertaking a reconnaissance in the direction of Deir el Shein in the sandstorm, the divisional armoured car regiment reported that all quiet there. Thus the 22nd Armoured Brigade remained out of action on the eastern edge of the Ruweisat Ridge. Gradually the Deutsches Afrikakorps prevailed over the defenders of Deir el Shein, but not until 18.00 was the last resistance quashed, at the cost of 18 of the 21st Panzerdivision’s 55 tanks. Too late to save the situation, the 22nd Armoured Brigade struck the 15th Panzerdivision at about 17.00 and drove the German armour away to the west.
Despite of the costly success of the Deutsches Afrikakorps against Deir el Shein, the gains of the Axis forces in this day’s fighting were small. By the evening, however, Auchinleck was confident that his novel artillery plan plus infantry defensive tactics had achieved a qualified success. The loss of Deir el Shein was balanced for the British by the time gained for the 1st Armoured Division to find its feet on the Ruweisat Ridge. It now had 38 Grant, 61 Stuart, 12 Valentine and eight Crusader tanks, as well as a useful number of 6-pdr guns in the hands of its 7th Motor Brigade Group.
Unhappy with the lack of action by the XIII Corps, Auchinleck called Gott to army headquarters during the evening. Although the Axis forces might not renew their attacks about El Alamein and might instead turn to the south, Auchinleck considered that XIII Corps should now look to the north and prepare for mobile action against the Axis forces’ southern flank if Rommel resumed his attack on the XXX Corps. Since British intelligence continued to insist that the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ was strong in armour and in infantry, caution was still necessary. But the situation as a whole was promising.
During the night British air activity intensified against Rommel’s forward troops and his lines of communication. By 10.00 on 2 July Rommel, facing the fact that the 90th leichte Division could not succeed on its own, was compelled to change his plan. The Deutsches Afrikakorps was now to move to the east and pass Alam el Onsol to reach the coast road, with the 90th leichte Division conforming. These operations would begin in the afternoon of 2 July.
However, since Rommel had made no early move, Auchinleck took a hand. The XXX Corps would hold its ground, the ‘Robcol’ of the Indian 10th Division would take over the 1st Armoured Division’s location at the eastern end of the Ruweisat Ridge, and the 1st Armoured Division, in conjunction with a thrust by the XIII Corps, would advance to the west along the southern slope of the Ruweisat Ridge to fall on the Axis forces’ flank. The afternoon clashes on Ruweisat Ridge therefore cancelled each other out. The 15th Panzerdivision on southern flank of the Deutsches Afrikakorps, was shelled by the artillery of the New Zealand 2nd Division and attacked frontally by the 30 Grant medium tanks of the 1st Armoured Division, and thus made no progress, while on the northern flank of the Deutsches Afrikakorps the 21st Panzerdivision, uninvolved with British armour and supported by heavy artillery fire, twice advanced along the ridge only to be pushed back on each occasion by the fire of the South African 1st Brigade and ‘Robcol’. But with the removal of the 1st Armoured Division from support of this exposed post, anxiety developed for its future at the South African 1st Division’s headquarters.
Auchinleck had ordered the XIII Corps to operate against the western end of El Mreir and thence to the north, but the bulk of the New Zealand 2nd Division’s artillery had already been committed to the support of the 1st Armoured Division between Alam Nayil and the Ruweisat Ridge, and the move did not materialise. By the evening of 2 July Auchinleck was confident that Rommel had shot his bolt for the time being, and therefore decided to call forward the Australian 9th Division from ‘Delta Force’ to join the XXX Corps. This was important as Pienaar, anxious about the exposed position of his South African 1st Brigade Group, requested the permission of the XXX Corps to withdraw it to a location nearer to Alam el Onsol. When Norrie refused, Pienaar telephoned Dorman-Smith at army headquarters, and on being again denied, asked to speak to Auchinleck. The British commander explained the importance of holding that locality, but then authorised Norrie to replace the South African 1st Brigade Group with ‘Ackcol’, an infantry and artillery force of the 50th Division.
For a time during that night the position was empty and a party of the 90th leichte Division moved in, to be driven out with loss and prisoners when ‘Ackcol’ arrived. But early on 3 July ‘Ackcol’ was itself shelled out and fell back, with some losses, to the south of Alam el Onsol.
Rommel now appreciated that Auchinleck was handling his forces with skill, and believed that increasing numbers of tanks and guns were reaching the British and commonwealth forces at the front. He therefore decided that he would call a temporary halt to the offensive after the end of the following day’s fighting.
His plan for 3 July envisaged an attack to the coast by the Deutsches Afrikakorps in conjunction with the 90th leichte Division, with the 132nd Divisione corazzata and Generale di Divisione Arnalso Azzi’s 101st Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste' sent to the south to contain the XIII Corps. But the two Panzer divisions of the Deutsches Afrikakorps were quickly checked by the 1st Armoured Division. The 132nd Divisione corazzata began its movement to the south, was harassed by British tanks from the east, engaged by the New Zealand artillery on Alam Nayil at close range, and halted in some confusion. Shortly after this, a motorised column of New Zealand infantry attacked the 132nd Divisione corazzata with the bayonet, taking some 350 prisoners, 44 pieces of artillery including 11 88-mm (3.465-in) weapons, and a large number of vehicles. By noon the 132nd Divisione corazzata had only five tanks and two guns left to it.
The fate of the 132nd Divisione corazzata shocked Rommel, who had considered this formation as his most reliable Italian division. Patching his southern flank with reconnaissance units, Rommel urged the Deutsches Afrikakorps to a final effort and, with intense artillery support, it went forward again at 16.00 and by 17.15 had arrived at a location some 9 miles (14.5 km) to the east of Deir el Shein, but could proceed no farther. On the south of the Ruweisat Ridge, the 1st Armoured Division held its ground for the loss of 17 Grant, 19 Stuart and three Valentine tanks.
The Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ was exhausted by its final effort and, unable to progress, now lay along an exposed 35-mile (56-km) front and dug in. The gap between the X Corps and the Deutsches Afrikakorps on the Ruweisat Ridge, now that the XX Corps was out of action, lacked a solid plug, and the three reconnaissance units were required to cover this open western flank. Much adjustment would be needed on 4 July. It was at this moment that the Comando Supremo should have taken control before the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ got further involved, ordering Rommel either to halt where he stood or withdrawing him back to the west.
British intelligence’s overestimate of the Axis strength continued to hang over the headquarters of the 8th Army, leading to a caution later appreciated to have been wrong. Auchinleck was not unduly impressed by the Axis forces’ penetration, for with the 1st Armoured Division on its southern flank, a successful Axis exploitation from there northward to the coast was unlikely. Auchinleck instructed the XXX Corps to hold the Axis forces on 4 July and regain ground to the west wherever this was feasible. The XIII Corps was to exert pressure to the west of El Mreir. The headquarters of the XIII Corps, still concerned for its right flank, responded sluggishly. Except for local pressure about El Mreir by Brigadier H. K. Kippenberger’s New Zealand 5th Brigade Group, strongly resisted by the X Corps with dive-bomber assistance, little developed.
Nevertheless, Rommel was taking no chances on the southern part of his front. On 4 July the 21st Panzerdivision was moved from the Ruweisat Ridge to the east of El Mreir, while 15th Panzerdivision and 90th leichte Division filled the gap thus made. At about 14.00 the 1st Armoured Division reported the westward movement of 21st Panzerdivision, and Auchinleck, suspecting that this might be the first sign of a general Axis withdrawal, warned both of his corps to be ready for pursuit. Under pressure, 15th Panzerdivision gave ground to the west, and in the follow-up the 1st Armoured Division almost overran it, but was held off by fire from an 88-mm (3.465-in) gun and the Germans escaped. In the event, the Deutsches Afrikakorps brought the 15th Panzerdivision back some 4 miles (6.4 km), exhausting the last of its gun ammunition in the process, and the 1st Armoured Division became almost as exhausted as its opponent.
That morning, Lumsden had pleaded with the commander of the XXX Corps for his division’s immediate relief. During the evening the Deutsches Afrikakorps mustered just 36 tanks in its two Panzer divisions. In terms of Grant medium tanks, the 1st Armoured Division was little stronger, but in view of the extreme weakness of the 15th Panzerdivision, more aggressive handling of the 1st Armoured Division might have brought the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ to a crisis.
Rommel and the Deutsches Afrikakorps felt that the crisis had now been weathered. Rommel’s intention from this point onward was to relieve the 90th leichte Division and the 15th Panzerdivision with Generale di Brigata Francesco Scotti’s 102nd Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Trento’ and Generale di Divisione Mario Soldarelli’s 60th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Sabratha’ of the XXI Corps, and to strengthen his reduced front between the Ruweisat Ridge and the sea, while reinforcements enabled him to reconstruct his armoured strength. But this implied that, for the first time in his desert campaigns, his Italian infantry would be exposed to direct contact with the 8th Army on a wide front.
For Auchinleck, the strain on the XXX Corps was eased by the arrival of Brigadier A. H. L. Godfrey’s Australian 24th Brigade in rear of the 1st Armoured Division on the Ruweisat Ridge. Although Auchinleck had accepted the Australian condition that brigades would not be committed to battle piecemeal under non-Australian command, the Australian arrival freed the 1st Armoured Division from a purely defensive role. Auchinleck now hoped to contain the Axis forces’ eastern and southern fronts and attack their rear, preventing them from any chance of a withdrawal a ‘force in being’.
The 8th Army would attack El Alamein toward the coast road, the XXX Corps as opportunity offered, and the XIII Corps by initiating operations along the road toward Abu Dweis. Yet Auchinleck pinned no great hopes on the XIII Corps doing more than keeping Rommel fully occupied.
On the morning of 5 July, Gott gave the New Zealand 2nd Division an axis of advance from Bab el Qattara to Sidi Abd el Rahman, and columns of Brigadier B. C. Fletcher’s Indian 9th Brigade were directed 10 miles (16 km) to the east of El Daaba. As it happened, the New Zealanders had hardly, as yet, recovered from the temporary loss of their dynamic leader, Freyberg, and operated hesitantly after being struck by an intense dive-bomber attack, while the Indians advanced on the New Zealanders’ left flank without making much progress.
By this stage of the battle, Rommel had come to the conclusion that formations were so exhausted that they were incapable of further advance until they had rested and regrouped. Rommel reported to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht that his three German divisions each had no more than 1,200 to 1,500 men, and that resupply was proving very difficult because of the strength of British air power. He expected to have to remain on the defensive for at least two weeks.
Rommel was by this time suffering acutely from the problems associated with the very extended length of his lines of communication and supply. Under the overall command of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Air Vice Marshal A. Coningham’s Air Headquarters, Western Desert was concentrating its efforts ever more strongly on the Axis forces' fragile and over-extended supply routes, and at the same time British mobile columns moving to the west and striking from the south were causing havoc in the Axis rear echelons. The supply situation of the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' was further exacerbated by the fact that attacks on convoys from Italy were becoming ever more effective. The arrival of shipments from Italy had therefore been substantially reduced: in June, for instance, the Axis forces in North Africa received only 4,465 tons of supplies compared with 30.360 tons in the preceding month, and 400 vehicles compared with 2,000.
Deciding that Norrie, who had commanded XXX Corps since November 1941, needed a rest, Auchinleck relieved him on 5 July with Ramsden, command of whose 50th Division was assumed from 12 July by Nichols, and this exchange in battle largely accounts for the sluggish performance of the XXX Corps in the period 6/7 July. But all the forward commanders needed some respite, and the operation given to the XIII Corps never developed substantially. On 7 July, the New Zealand 4th Brigade, under the temporary command of Lieutenant Colonel J. T. Burrows since the death in action of Brigadier J. R. Gray on 5 July, advanced to Munga Wahla, but later withdrew, although a column of Renton’s 7th Armoured Division, then being recast as a ‘light armoured division’ by the addition of Carr’s 4th Armoured Brigade Group with three armoured car regiments, did reach Fuka on the evening of 7 July and shelled a landing ground.
Patrols of the Special Air Service and Long Range Desert Group destroyed seven Italian fighter aircraft on the ground. Nothing much occurred elsewhere, but neither Rommel nor Auchinleck was likely to remain inactive for long.
Frustrated about El Alamein, Rommel was considering a blow to the XIII Corps by driving the Deutsches Afrikakorps toward Alam Nayil and Deir el Munassib, where success would open the desert route to Cairo and leave the XXX Corps stranded at El Alamein. Now that a number of raids had revealed that Italian formations and units were deployed from the Ruweisat Ridge to the sea, Auchinleck wished to use the Australian 9th Division to develop the second phase of his battle plan, namely the destruction of the Italians. A XXX Corps’ blow to the west along the coast road in the direction of Tell el Eisa, if successful, would also threaten Rommel’s slender lines of communication.
This operation was allocated to Ramsden’s XXX Corps, and was to be launched on the night 9/10 July. Meanwhile Auchinleck decided to move the XIII Corps farther north to the Alam Nayil Ridge in order to concentrate the artillery of 8th Army and to position the XIII Corps for a further blow against the Italian forces as soon as the XXX Corps’ attack on the coast had taken full effect. This tactical withdrawal of the XIII Corps entailed the evacuation of the Bab el Qattara box and left the southern route to Cairo apparently exposed.
Regrouping began on the night of 7/8 July and, as a distraction, the Australians raided the luckless 15th Panzerdivision. The Deutsches Afrikakorps treated the Australian raid as a major attack, calling the 21st Panzerdivision to support the 15th Panzerdivision, and during the disturbance the New Zealand 2nd Division’s move to new positions went unobserved. On the following morning an angry Rommel replaced Crasemann with Generalmajor Heinz von Randow as commander of 15th Panzerdivision, and demanded greater alertness from the officers of the Deutsches Afrikakorps.
Auchinleck hoped that the eastward move of the XIII Corps, and the exposure of the southern route this would seem to indicate, would tempt Rommel to develop operations in the southern quarter, using his German mobile forces, so leaving his northern flank, held by the XXI Corps, exposed to the attack of the XXX Corps. Rommel took the bait. During the night, the XIII Corps regrouped to the east, and by dawn the New Zealand 2nd Division was some 3 miles (4.8 km) to the east and south-east of the empty Bab el Qattara box, but it was not until about 12.00 on 8 July that the 21st Panzerdivision reported to the Deutsches Afrikakorps the fact that the New Zealanders had gone from El Mreir, and then the Deutsches Afrikakorps failed to inform Rommel of this fact until he telephoned on another matter during the morning of 9 July. Rommel went straight to the headquarters of the Deutsches Afrikakorps in something of an angry mood after ordering a Kampfgruppe of the 90th leichte Division to move to the south, with the rest of the division in its wake. He also mounted a full-scale assault by the 133rd Divisione corazzata on the empty Bab el Qattara position, well supported by the heavy artillery of the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’, whose efforts were watched, with some admiration, by the New Zealanders from a safe distance.
It would seem that Rommel attributed the retreat of the XIII Corps to the development of his own plans. Quite unaware that the XIII Corps had moved 24 hours earlier, Rommel believed that the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ had achieved a decisive breakthrough which had only to be exploited to produce a collapse of the El Alamein position. So, on the evening of 9 July, he prepared to launch an ‘eastward thrust which would finally overthrow the El Alamein position’, using most of his mobile troops.
Auchinleck had thus got Rommel precisely as he wanted him, with the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ stretched from the sea to the Qattara Depression as a time when 8th Army was well concentrated toward the northern half of the El Alamein front.
On the coast, the XXX Corps’ attack began at 03.30 and the distant artillery bombardment, of particular intensity, alerted Rommel to the error of his thinking, centred on a march on Cairo during 10 July. By 10.00, supported by 32 Valentine tanks, the Australian 9th Division had captured and largely consolidated the eastern part of Tell el Eisa dominating the road and railway to the east of El Alamein, while the South African 1st Division, supported by eight Matilda infantry tanks, had secured Tell el Makh Khad between Tell el Eisa and El Alamein. Rommel reported that ‘The Sabratha Division had been nearly annihilated…The Italians had left their line, many in panic, with no attempt at defending themselves.’
The headquarters of the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ was about 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north-west of Tell el Eisa, and appeared to be in serious danger. Oberstleutnant Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin rallied the headquarters staff and, with the aid of the leading troops of Generalmajor Josef Folttmann’s 164th leichte Afrikadivision in the process of arriving by air from Crete, formed a defensive front less than 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south-east of army headquarters. Fearing that if the British and commonwealth forces reached Sidi Abd el Rahman, where the lines of communication to the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ would be cut, Rommel reacted with great alacrity. He cancelled the proposed eastward advance and hurried to the north with his Kampfstaffel (battle headquarters), picking up a Kampfgruppe of the 15th Panzerdivision as he went. By 12.00 Rommel had launched a counterattack which was halted by a great artillery bombardment from El Alamein.
Early on 11 July, the Australians secured the western end of Tell el Eisa, and a raiding group struck to the south toward Deir el Abyad. Rommel wrote that ‘several more Italian units, this time of the “Trieste” Division, were overpowered and taken prisoner…The British drive long the coast had brought about the destruction of the bulk of the “Sabratha” Division and a large part of the “Trieste” Division…There could be no question of launching any large-scale attacks in the near future…I was compelled to order every last German soldier up the front, for, in face of the virtual default a large proportion of our Italian fighting power, the situation was beginning to take crisis proportions.’
The Australian raid on Deir el Abyad was checked on the Miteirya Ridge and the Australians later withdrew, while Rommel prepared a full-scale counter-offensive which was to be launched on 13 July by the 21st Panzerdivision, with the ambitious object of achieving what the Deutsches Afrikakorps and 90th leichte Division had failed to achieve between 1 and 3 July. But to Rommel’s distress the 21st Panzerdivision failed. On the following day the same division was committed once again against the Australian forward position, and yet again failed in bitter fighting.
Between 10 and 14 July the activities of the XXX Corps had been very successful. The bulk of two Italian divisions had been destroyed, and Rommel’s German forces, in particular the 21st Panzerdivision, had suffered major losses in unsuccessful counterattacks. In the meanwhile, the 90th leichte Division had been committed unsuccessfully against the formations of the XIII Corps, while the main body of that corps faced to the north against the over-exposed and weakly supported divisions of the X Corps. When, during 9 July, the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ occupied El Qattara and extended its front to the south, the X Corps was deployed astride the Ruweisat Ridge, with Generale di Divisione Brunetto Brunetta’s 27th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Brescia’ to the north and Generale di Divisione Nazzareno Scattaglia’s 17th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Pavia’ to the south. The forward posts lay somewhat to the east of Point 64 on the ridge, and from this point the Italian front extended to Alam el Dihmaniya and thence to Bab el Qattara. To the south of Alam el Dihmaniya the XX Corps continued the Axis front. Thus the X Corps covered the centre of the Axis dispositions.
Point 63, the very western end of the Ruweisat Ridge and overlooking Deir el Shein, was of great tactical significance as in the cover of the Deir el Abyad and El Shein depressions lay the bulk of the reserve artillery available to the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’, the headquarters of the Deutsches Afrikakorps and X Corps, and important supply dumps, all protected by a powerful deployment of anti-aircraft guns. To the south of Ruweisat Ridge, behind the forward posts of the 27th Divisione autotrasportabile, lay part of the 15th Panzerdivision and the 2/382nd Regiment of Folttmann’s newly arrived 164th leichte Afrikadivision.
On the British and commonwealth side of the front, by 11 July the XIII Corps was disposed with the New Zealand 2nd Division facing to the north on the Alam Nayil Ridge, and the 7th Armoured Division about Deir el Munassib and Qaret el Himeimat, in touch with the 90th leichte Division and the German reconnaissance units. The 1st Armoured Division covered the left flank on the western end of the Alam Nayil Ridge, but the boundary between the XIII and XXX Corps ran roughly from south-east to north-west, giving Point 64 to the XXX Corps. Briggs’s Indian 5th Division, strong in field artillery and 6-pdr anti-tank guns, faced the Ruweisat Ridge on the south and extended to the north-east to contact with the South African 1st Division.
From 11 July Auchinleck had been considering a blow against the Axis forces in the area to the east of the track between El Alamein and Abu Dweis, and to the north of the Ruweisat Ridge. The XIII and XXX Corps would both be involved in the operation, the former to take the Ruweisat Ridge from Point 64 eastward, and the latter to capture the remainder of the ridge. The attack would be delivered in darkness and silence, and the 1st Armoured Division would protect the left flank of the New Zealand attack, about Point 63, from daybreak, while also waiting in readiness to exploit along the boundary between the two corps. In addition, the XXX Corps would attempt to secure the Miteirya Ridge. The 8th Army envisaged the capture of the whole of the Ruweisat Ridge westward to Point 63, so the XIII Corps included Point 63 in its first objective for the night advance, although this entailed an approach of 6 miles (9.6 km) for the left-hand brigade of the New Zealand 2nd Division and thus placed Burrows’s New Zealand 4th Brigade out of range of artillery support at daybreak, the time this was most needed.
Perhaps a more prudent course for the XIII Corps would have been to establish an intermediate objective on which the New Zealanders could consolidate until proper artillery and armoured support could be provided to permit the advance to resume to Point 63. The attainment of such an objective would have overrun the 27th Divisione autotrasportabile without overstraining and overexposing the assaulting troops. The New Zealand 2nd Division’s two assaulting brigades had been in night patrol contact with the Axis forces since 11 July and were aware of the contemplated night attack. Three days were thus available for preparation.
The XIII Corps’ advance began at 23.00 on 14 July, and by dawn on 15 July the New Zealand assault companies had gained their ridge objectives.
Meanwhile, on the XXX Corps’ front, the Indian 5th Division, despite less initial success, had secured all its objectives by 12.00 and taken more than 1,000 prisoners.
Much went awry on XIII Corps’ front, however, despite the initial successes of the infantry. Although some New Zealanders swept right into Deir el Shein, where large numbers of Italians surrendered, it proved impossible to get forward the supporting arms to the left flank because Axis pockets lay between the ridge and the start line. On the line of the New Zealand 5th Brigade’s advance a group of Axis tanks came to life and overran the supporting battalion, and worse still, the 22nd Armoured Brigade, expected on the left flank, had not left Alam Nayil at first light. With 75 tanks, including 31 Grant vehicles, this brigade would have been well able to deal with whatever Axis armour lay to the south of the ridge, and so protect the infantry during the inevitable period of disorganisation, but when the armoured brigade eventually reached Alam el Dihmaniya, it unexpectedly did little to protect the New Zealand 4th Brigade from being overrun in a series of armoured and infantry counterattacks which developed during the afternoon and regained Point 63 for the Axis. In all, the New Zealanders lost about 1,500 officers and men to be set against the 1,600 prisoners they had taken and the very many casualties they inflicted on the Axis forces during the night assault.
At one time, it is thought, there were 20,000 Axis prisoners for the taking, including four Italian generals, but most of these were saved by the German counterattacks. From a New Zealand perspective, therefore, the operation was a disappointment, despite the fact that the XIII and XXX Corps eventually consolidated on the objective ordained in the 8th Army’s orders. Had the XIII Corps limited its objective, the setback to the New Zealand 4th Brigade would have been avoided, and inevitably the fate of the brigade and of part of Kippenberger’s New Zealand 5th Brigade led to a measure of bad feeling between the New Zealanders and the British armour.
Nonetheless, the effect of this fresh blow upon Rommel, coming so soon after the coastal attack, was devastating. On 16 July the Deutsches Afrikakorps made two determined attempts to recapture the lost ground on the Ruweisat Ridge, in the area of Point 64. These collapsed under the concentrated fire of the British corps artillery and divisional 6-pdr anti-tank guns, and Rommel was forced to withdraw, leaving behind 24 tanks, including a captured Stuart, six armoured cars, six 88-mm (3.465-in) guns, 10 other anti-tank guns, and 10 field guns. Taking into account the matériel captured in the New Zealand advance to the south of the Ruweisat Ridge, there is little doubt that Auchinleck’s second major attack, at the Ruweisat Ridge, effected the temporary destruction of the X Corps as a fighting formation.
About Tell el Eisa, early on 16 July, the Australians attacked and took several strongpoints held by Generale di Divisione Guido della Bona’s 60th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Sabratha’, though the ground gained was later given up as not being worth holding. Again, on 17 July, the Australians attacked toward the Miteirya Ridge and took many Italian prisoners. Rommel summed up the situation on July 17 as follows: ‘On that day every last German reserve had to be thrown in. Our forces were now so small in comparison with the steadily growing strength of the British that we were going to count ourselves lucky if we managed to go on holding our line at all. As a result of the immense casualties which the Italians had suffered our line was very thinly manned…We had virtually no reserves.’
On 21 July Rommel reported his situation to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. His German forces had suffered heavy losses, and the Italians had proved to be so unreliable that he had been reduced to interspersing them with Germans. He believed his front would hold, but, until the newly arriving 164th leichte Afrikadivision was complete, until he had been able to reconstitute a mobile reserve, and until he could completely mine his forward areas, the situation remained critical. His German formations were 60% below strength, the replacement personnel who were arriving were substandard, and although supplies were adequate for day-to-day use, no accumulation of stocks to sustain a new offensive was yet feasible as the RAF had air superiority and its attacks on Tobruk and Mersa Matruh were most damaging.
Rommel’s report was in effect an admission of failure, not only of the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ but also of the plans of the Comando Supremo and Oberkommando des Heeres for the summer of 1942, thus confirming what Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, and Maresciallo d’Italia Ugo Cavallero, head of the Comando Supremo, found when they visited Rommel’s headquarters on 17 July.
On that day, at the height of the battle crisis through which the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ was passing, they belatedly took the situation in hand. A chastened Rommel, unable either to advance or to retreat, and barely able to hold his over-extended front, demanded armour, 88-mm (3.465-in) guns, ammunition, petrol and, above all, reinforcement by reliable troops to replace the equivalent of four Italian divisions lost since 1 July. All that the Comando Supremo had available were the airborne forces which had been allocated to the ‘Herkules’ and ‘Esigenza C3’, which were the German and Italian components of the proposed assault on Malta, and which had now perforce to be cancelled, to the relief of Adolf Hitler who feared losses even worse than those suffered by the German airborne forces in the ‘Merkur’ assault on Crete.
The German and Italian airborne formations could be delivered to North Africa, but lacked any motor transport, and Kesselring also appreciated that every new formation added to the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ exacerbated the Axis powers’ cross-Mediterranean supply and maintenance difficulties.
Auchinleck’s tactical successes at Tell el Eisa and the Ruweisat Ridge thus destroyed the Axis powers’ grand strategy for the Mediterranean campaign in the summer of 1942. Rommel was to be committed to a new, and dubious, offensive at a time late in August, against a rested, reorganised and reinforced 8th Army, resulting the Battle of Alam el Halfa.
On 22 June the Germans launched their ‘Blau’ series of summer offensives in the southern USSR. The menace to the Caucasus, and thence the Middle East and even India, was obvious and neither the War Cabinet nor the Middle East Defence Committee could ignore the potential danger to the Persian Gulf oil installations vital to the UK’s continued ability to wage a modern war at sea, in the air and on land. Everything fit to fight was concentrated in the defence of Egypt, and Persia and Iraq depended for their defence during July and August upon whatever could be sent there from Egypt.
On 9 July the Middle East Defence Committee had asked the War Cabinet for direction as to the relative strategic priorities of the Egyptian delta and the Persian Gulf. As to the priorities, the War Cabinet hedged, but on 12 July Prime Minister Winston Churchill told Auchinleck that ‘The only way in which a sufficient army can be gathered in the northern theatre is by your defeating or destroying General Rommel and driving him to at least a safe distance.’ Auchinleck knew that there could be no ‘safe distance’, and that only ‘destroying’ the Axis forces in July and August would make it possible to reinforce the northern front from Egypt. By September there would be ample reserves in Egypt for this, while still holding Egypt.
In the meantime Auchinleck was compelled to accept Churchill’s ruling, although this meant the launch of a weak and battle-worn 8th Army in an all-out attempt to ‘destroy’ the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’. Auchinleck’s problem was the decision about when, where and with what to strike without delay. His only relatively fresh infantry two infantry brigades (one New Zealand brigade and one Indian brigade just arrived from Iraq). Additionally an armoured brigade from the UK had recently reached Egypt. Though equipped with Valentine tanks, it was trained as part of an armoured division for mobile warfare and therefore not for co-operation with infantry. Despite its lack of experience in desert fighting, this armoured reinforcement might be the key factor. The brigade could be ready by 21 July, and it was this which decided the date of the attack.
Auchinleck decided to reinforce Gott’s XIII Corps with the available infantry and all his armour, including his Valentine brigade, less one regiment for the XXX Corps, and to strike hard at Rommel’s centre between Deir el Shein and El Mreir. If success here was incomplete but sufficient to consume Rommel’s armoured reserve, the moment would be ripe for a blow by the XXX Corps, reinforced by all available armour and the armoured car brigade, to strike farther to the north against the eastern end of Miteirya Ridge on 24 July with the object of passing mobile forces into Rommel’s rear areas between Tell el Aqqaqir and Deir el Abyad.
Now on the defensive until his Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ could be regrouped for the late-August offensive, Rommel lacked a mobile reserve as the whole of the Deutsches Afrikakorps, with a mere 42 combat-capable tanks, was now deployed forward, replacing the X Corps on an 8-mile (13-km) front from El Mreir to Ruweisat Ridge. To the south of the Deutsches Afrikakorps was the XX Corps with some 50 indifferent tanks. The remnants of the 27th Divisione autotrasportabile held Deir el Shein. To the north-west, near the sea, the front of the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ lay some 2 miles (3.2 km) beyond the Miteirya Ridge, weakly held by a mixture of German and Italian units from the 164th leichte Afrikadivision and the X Corps and XXI Corps. Rommel’s concept was to hold his ground and cover his front with mines, largely culled from the former British minefields around Mersa Matruh, and he devoted every vehicle and man he could spare to the collection and distribution of these mines. The stage was set thus set for renewed battle.
The 8th Army now enjoyed a very significant advantage in matériel over the Panzerarmee 'Afrika': the 1st Armoured Division had 173 tanks and more in reserve or transit, including 61 Grant medium tanks, while Rommel’s forces possessed only 38 German and 51 Italian tanks, with 100 or so tanks awaiting repair.
Auchinleck’s plan was for Brigadier F. E. C. Hughes’s Indian 161st Motor Brigade to attack along the Ruweisat Ridge to take Deir el Shein, while Clifton’s New Zealand 6th Brigade attacked from a position to the 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, were to sweep through the gap created by the infantry. The plan was complicated and ambitious.
On 21/22 July Gott’s XIII Corps (five infantry brigades and 274 tanks) attacked with the support of some 300 pieces of artillery.
The infantry assault began at 16.30 on 21 July. The New Zealanders took their objectives in the El Mreir depression but, yet again, many vehicles failed to arrive and the New Zealanders were short of support weapons in an exposed position. At dawn on 22 July, the British armoured brigades again failed to advance, and at much the same time the . At daybreak on 22 July, Oberst Gerhard Müller’s 5th Panzerregiment and Oberstleutnant Willi Teege’s 8th Panzerregiment of Nehring’s Deutsches Afrikakorps responded with a counterattack which was planned and executed with great speed and in open terrain swiftly overran the New Zealand infantry, which suffered more than 900 casualties. The 2nd Armoured Brigade sent forward two regiments to aid the New Zealanders, but the British tanks were halted by mines and anti-tank fire.
The Indian 161st Motor Brigade’s attack also 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 to advance, intent on a complete adherence to the letter of his orders. Gatehouse, commander of the 1st Armoured Division, had not been sure that a path had been adequately cleared through the minefields and had suggested the advance be cancelled, but at the XIII Corps' headquarters Gott had rejected Gatehouse’s suggestion and ordered the attack to be committed, although on an axis 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south of the original plan as he believed the new axis to be free of mines. Gott’s order was not received, and as a result the 23rd Armoured Brigade’s attack went ahead as originally planned. The brigade found itself caught in minefields and under heavy fire, counterattacked by the 21st Panzerdivision at 11.00, and forced to withdraw. The 23rd Armoured Brigade was effectively annihilated 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 Fletcher’s Indian 9th Brigade attacked at 02.00 on 23 July but failed after losing its direction in the dark. A further attempt in daylight succeeded in breaking into the Axis position, but intense fire from three sides resulted in the loss control as Fletcher 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, Brigadier R. W. Tovell’s Australian 26th Brigade attacked Tel el Eisa and Godfrey’s Australian 24th Brigade attacked Tel el Makh Khad toward the Miteirya Ridge, which became known to the Australians as 'Ruin Ridge'. The fighting for Tel el Eisa was costly, but by the afternoon the Australians controlled the feature. During the evening, the Australian 24th Brigade attacked Tel el Makh Khad with the tanks of the 50th Royal Tank Regiment in support. This latter had not been trained in close infantry support and failed to co-ordinate effectively with the Australian infantry. The result was that the infantry and armour advanced independently and having reached the objective the 50th RTR lost 23 tanks because it lacked infantry support.
Yet 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: despite fighting 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 as a last effort to break the Axis forces. The XXX Corps was reinforced with the 1st Armoured Division (less Brigadier G. P. B. Roberts’s 22nd Armoured Brigade), Carr’s 4th Light Armoured Brigade, and Brigadier E. C. Cooke-Collis’s 69th Brigade. The plan was to break the Axis line in the area to the south of the Miteirya Ridge and then to exploit toward 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 24.00 on 26/27 July. By 01.00 on 27 July, the Australian 24th Brigade was to have captured the eastern end of the Miteirya Ridge and would start to advance to the north-west. The 69th Brigade would pass through the minefield gap created by the South Africans to Deir el Dhib and clear and mark gaps in minefields farther to the west, and Briggs’s 2nd Armoured Brigade would then pass through to El Wishka, followed by the 4th Light Armoured Brigade with the task of attacking the Axis lines of communication.
'Manhood' thus represented a third attempt to break through in the northern sector, and the Axis defenders were expecting the attack. As had been the case with the previous attacks, 'Manhood' was hurriedly prepared and thus poorly planned.
The Australian 24th Brigade managed to take its objectives on the Miteirya Ridge by 02.00 on 27 July. Farther to the south, the 69th Brigade moved out at 01.30 and managed to take its objectives by about 08.00. Supporting anti-tank units became lost in the darkness or delayed by minefields, however, leaving the attackers both isolated and, as the light of day appeared, exposed. There followed a period in which reports from the front 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 RTR supporting the Australians was having difficulty locating the minefield gaps made by Australian 2/24th Battalion. The tanks failed to find a route through the minefields, were caught by heavy fire and lost 13 tanks. The unsupported 2/28th Australian battalion on the ridge was overrun. The 69th Brigade suffered 600 casualties and the Australians 400 for no gain.
Rommel’s belts of minefields had turned the scale, and the 8th Army’s effort to destroy the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ therefore failed, but only just failed, as on 27 July the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ was down to its last rounds of medium artillery ammunition and almost totally out of fuel. Had Auchinleck been able quickly to plan and execute one more major attack, Rommel would almost certainly have been compelled to retreat right back to the Egyptian frontier. Given the Axis forces’ shortages of transport and fuel, whether or not he would have got there intact is uncertain.
The 8th Army was now 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 later placed the blame for his forces' failure to break through to the Nile river on the severe shortage if not total lack of supplies reaching the Panzerarmee 'Afrika', and on the inadequacy of the Italian formations: '…the the power of resistance of many Italian formations collapsed. The duties of comradeship, for me particularly as their commander-in-chief, compel me to state unequivocally that the defeats which the Italian formations suffered at El Alamein in early July were not the fault of the Italian soldier. The Italian was willing, unselfish and a good, and, considering the conditions under which he served, had always given better than average. There is no doubt that the achievement of every Italian unit, especially of the motorised forces, far surpassed anything that the Italian army had done for 100 years. Many Italian generals and officers won our admiration both as men and as soldiers. The cause of the Italian defeat had its roots in the whole Italian military state and system, in their poor armament and in the general lack of interest in the war by many Italians, both officers and statesmen. This Italian failure frequently prevented the realisation of my plans.'
Rommel also complained bitterly about the failure of important Italian convoys to get through to North African ports with vital deliveries of tanks and supplies. For this Rommel always blamed the Italian high command, for he was totally ignorant, of course, and the contribution of the 'Ultra' system to decrypt intercepted Axis communications and make effective use of the intelligence that emerged from this system.
The 1st Battle of El Alamein ended as a tactical stalemate, but it was a major strategic victory for the British inasmuch as it had halted the Axis advance on Alexandria,(and thence Cairo and ultimately the Suez Canal. The 8th Army had suffered more than 13,00 casualties in July, this figure including 4,000 men of the New Zealand 2nd Division, 3,000 in the Indian 5th Division and 2,550 in the Australian 9th Division, but it had taken 7,000 German and Italian prisoners and inflicted heavy damage on Axis formations, heavy weapon and essential equipment.
In his appreciation of 27 July, Auchinleck made it clear that the 8th Army would not be ready for further offensive operations until the middle of September at the very earliest. He believed that Rommel, because he understood that with the passage of time the Allied situation would only improve, was compelled to attack as soon as possible and before the end of August when he would have superiority in armour. Auchinleck now began, therefore, to plan for a defensive battle.
Early in August, Churchill and General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, visited Cairo on their way to meet the Soviet leadership in Moscow. They decided to replace Auchinleck, appointing Gott, the commander of the XIII Corps, as Auchinleck’s successor at the head of the 8th Army, and General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander as commander-in-chief of the Middle East Command. Persia and Iraq were divided from the Middle East Command as a separate Persia and Iraq Command, command of which was offered to Auchinleck, who refused. However, Gott was killed on the way to take up his new command when a German fighter intercepted the aeroplane carrying him and a bullet penetrated Gott’s heart. Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery was appointed in Gott’s place and assumed command of the 8th Army on 13 August.