El Alamein, Egypt · November 2, 1942

On this date in 1942 in northern Egypt, Gen. Erwin Rom­mel (aka “Desert Fox”), bril­liant com­mand­er of the Ger­man Afrika Korps, signaled to Adolf Hitler that he and his men would have to retreat after the British Eight Army, led by Lt. Gen. Ber­nard Mont­gomery, deci­sively bested them at the Second Battle of El Ala­mein (Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 11, 1942). El Ala­mein—66 miles west of the port city of Alexan­dria on the Egyptian Nile—was the turning point in the Allies’ back-and-forth slug­fest in North Africa, and it ended Axis hopes of occu­pying Egypt, taking con­trol of the Suez Canal, and gaining access to the Middle East­ern and Per­sian oil fields. British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill famously said of the North African cam­paign, “Before Ala­mein we never had a victory. After Ala­mein we never had a defeat.” (It was Mont­gomery’s greatest tri­umph; he took the title “Vis­count Mont­gomery of Ala­mein” when he was made a mem­ber of British nobil­ity after the war.) Mont­gomery was blessed with numer­i­cal supe­ri­ority in men and partic­u­larly equip­ment after the arrival of Spit­fire air­planes, 6‑pounder anti­tank guns, and Amer­i­can-built M4 Sher­man tanks with their turret-mounted 75mm high-velocity gun cap­able of pene­trating the armor of any Ger­man tank. Rom­mel, pushed back into Italian-held Libya, made a stand at El Agheila (Al-‘Uqaylah) on the Gulf of Sidra in Novem­ber and Decem­ber 1942, but he was even­tu­ally out­flanked. Since re­treating from Egypt, Rom­mel’s Afrika Korps (or Panzer­armee Afrika, as it was now called) had lost roughly 75,000 men, 1,000 guns, and 500 tanks. His army was bested south of Tripoli (at El Buerat) at the end of Decem­ber, but the Desert Fox succeeded in evac­u­ating the rem­nants of his forces to Tunisia in Janu­ary 1943. The Anglo-Amer­i­can Torch landings in neigh­boring Algeria and further east in Morocco the previous Novem­ber dashed Rom­mel’s plans to go on the offen­sive and con­soli­date the Ger­man hold on Tunisia. By mid-1943, all remaining Ger­man and Ital­ian forces in North Africa—some 250,000 strong minus the invalided Rom­mel—were swept up into Allied cap­tivity. The Ital­ian barn door as it were stood wide open, beckoning the Allies to begin their next operation, Opera­tion Husky (July 10 to August 17, 1943), the invasion of Europe.

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Precursor to Victory at El Alamein: The Battle of Alam el Halfa

Map of Egyptian battlefields, September–October 1942

Above: The Battle of Alam el Halfa (August 30 to Septem­ber 5, 1942) took place south of El Ala­mein. (Alam el Halfa appears as a ridge on the right edge of the map.) It was Mont­gomery’s first battle in North Africa, and his mili­tary doc­trine was put to the test. Rom­mel’s objec­tive was to defeat Mont­gomery’s British Eighth Army before Allied reinforce­ments made an Axis vic­tory in Africa impos­sible. Thanks in part to Mont­gomery’s superior fire­power and Allied mastery of the skies, the Battle of Alam el Halfa and the widely famous follow-on Second Battle of El Alamein (Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 11, 1942) were the last major Axis offensives in North Africa.

PzKpfw IIIs from Rommel’s 21st Panzer DivisionCaptured Sd Kfz 135/1 self-propelled 150mm howitzers from the 21st Panzer Division

Left: PzKpfw IIIs (Panzerkampfwagen IIIs) of Rommel’s 21st Panzer Divi­sion advance with infan­try sup­port in Egypt in this photo from circa May 1942. On August 31, 1942, they led the assault to out­flank Brit­ish posi­tions during the Battle of Alam el Halfa, but by then Mont­gomery’s Eighth Army was suffi­ciently equipped to repulse them, ending Rom­mel’s lightning advances in the western desert.

Right: Seven captured German special-purpose (Sd Kfz) 135/1 self-propelled 150mm howit­zers from the 21st Panzer Division near El Ala­mein, Octo­ber 1942. During the Second Battle of El Ala­mein, the 21st Panzer Divi­sion was reduced to four tanks and fought a rear-guard action all the way to Tunis. The rem­nants of the division surrendered to the Allies on May 13, 1943.

British Valentine Mk3 tankHawker Hurricane undergoing maintenance, Tobruk 1941

Left: A British-built, two-man-turret Mk3 Valen­tine tank in North Africa carries Scottish infan­try­men. The Valen­tine tank was exten­sively used in the North African Cam­paign, but it shared the com­mon weak­ness of Brit­ish tanks of the period: its 2‑pounder gun lacked high-explosive (anti­per­son­nel) capa­bility, and it soon became out­dated as an anti-tank wea­pon, too. By 1944 the Valen­tine had been almost com­pletely replaced in Euro­pean front-line units by the Chur­chill (Infan­try Tank Mark IV) and the U.S.-made M4 Sherman tank.

Right: Maintenance work being carried out on a Hawker Hurri­cane during the Brit­ish defense of Tobruk, Libya, 1941. The Hawker Hurri­cane was the Allies’ most use­ful aircraft in North Africa owing to its dura­bility, an attri­bute very impor­tant in harsh desert con­di­tions. The Hurri­cane played mul­tiple roles in North Africa: photo-recon­nais­sance, patrolling, fighting, and bombing. The Hurri­cane developed into a lethal tank-buster that was first exploited to the max at Alam el Halfa, where Rommel’s retreating Afrika Korps was bombed day and night.

Battle of Alam el Halfa, August 30 to September 5, 1942, Sets the Stage for Rommel’s Defeat