El Alamein, Northwestern Egypt October 23, 1942

In 1942 El Alamein was a mean little rail­way station roughly 275 miles (440 km) east of the Libyan-Egyptian border. The First Battle of El Alamein was fought there between July 1 and 27, 1942, by a mixed German-Italian army under newly minted Field Marshal Erwin Rom­mel in com­mand of Panzer Army Africa (Panzer­armee Afrika) and a mixed British Imperial-Common­wealth force under Gen. Claude Auchin­leck (soon replaced by Lt. Gen. Ber­nard Law Mont­gom­ery) com­manding the Eighth Army. Though a stale­mate, the Eighth Army had stopped the Axis drive to over­run Egypt and seize the Suez Canal and the Middle East­ern and Persian (Iranian) oil fields, putting the “Desert Fox” on the defen­sive. Both sides took the next 3 months to pre­pare for a new offen­sive, the Second Battle of El Alamein.

During July and August 1942, Rommel received 35,000 new troops but no heavy wea­pons, tanks, or ammu­ni­tion. Axis mili­tary assets were 116,000 service­men, 547 tanks, 552 artil­lery pieces, and 770–900 air­craft. Mont­gomery, new at Eighth Army helm, had well over 1½ times the men under arms as the enemy had, nearly 2 times the tanks, over 4 times the artil­lery pieces, but slightly fewer air­craft, though the air­craft included the latest Super­marine Spit­fires, Curtiss P‑40 Toma­hawk fighters, and U.S.-piloted North Amer­i­can B‑25 medium bombers. Late on this date, Octo­ber 23, 1942, and over the next two days in a phase known as the Break-In (Oper­a­tion Light­foot), Mont­gomery opened up with a deafening bom­bard­ment of Axis defenses. Enemy ears bled and the con­cus­sion of exploding shells caused many deaths. Bomber runs, flail tanks for clearing anti­tank and anti­per­sonnel mine­fields, and infan­try with fixed bayonets moved haltingly into the north­ern and south­ern sectors of the Axis’s east­ern flanks (see map below). Casual­ties were heavy from stiff Axis resistance.

Rommel returned from European sick leave and took com­mand of Axis forces at mid­night on Octo­ber 25, more than 48 hours after the Second Battle of El Ala­mein had begun. The first major battle of tanks and men, this in the north­ern sector, was 6 days of non-stop attack and counter­attack. It petered out in a stale­mate, both sides exhausted, with the Eight Army suffering 3,000 casualties. But Mont­gomery girded his loins once again and at 1 a.m. on Novem­ber 2 the fight was on once more in the largest tank action of the battle (Oper­a­tion Super­charge). By the end of the day, Rommel had less than 50 tanks able to move while Mont­gomery had 10 times that many. Rommel was also short of antitank guns and fuel.

That evening Rommel sent a message to Marshal of Italy Ugo Caval­lero at Comando Supremo in Rome, Italy, who had direct author­ity over Rom­mel. Rom­mel was between a rock and a hard place and said his only hope was to “extri­cate the rem­nants” of his army. British intel­li­gence inter­cepted Rom­mel’s plea to Comando Supremo, as well as one Hitler sent the next day ordering Rom­mel to stand and fight. The order was a death sen­tence for Panzer Army Africa, and Rom­mel and German Field Marshal Albert Kessel­ring, Com­man­der in Chief South under­stood it as such. Kessel­ring implored Hitler to rescind his order, which the Fuehrer did on Novem­ber 4. On the same day Lt. Gen. Wil­helm Ritter von Thoma, com­mander of the elite Afrika Korps, was captured and sur­ren­dered to Mont­gomery. That evening Rommel gave orders to retreat.

As German and Italian units began falling back, chased by the Eighth Army, the Panzer Army Africa front collapsed. Eighth Army’s casual­ties were 13,500 killed, wounded, or missing, about 8 per­cent of the force. Among German and Ital­ian sol­diers, 30,000 out of just over 100,000 were taken pri­soner, two-thirds Ital­ian. Killed or wounded may have amounted to 20,000. British Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill cele­brated the vic­tory at El Ala­mein—the first British vic­tory over a German-led army—famously saying, “Now is not the end. It is not even the begin­ning of the end. But perhaps it is the end of the beginning.”

Second Battle of El Alamein (October 23 to November 11, 1942): Erwin Rommel Stumbles Badly

Map Second Battle of El Alamein, deployment of forces

Above: Second Battle of El Alamein, deployment of Allied forces across a 40‑mile front, Octo­ber 23, 1942. The defeat of Erwin Rom­mel’s Panzer Army Africa at El Alamein early the next month prompted a long retreat of over 1,500 miles (2,400 km) and the even­tual helter-skelter sur­ren­der of Axis forces in Tunisia, North Africa in May 1943. From their secure bases in North Africa and else­where in the Medi­ter­ranean basin the Allies launched their Ital­ian Cam­paign by attacking the island of Sicily (Oper­a­tion Husky, July 9 to August 17, 1943) and then the Ital­ian main­land begin­ning in early Septem­ber 1943. The Ital­ian Cam­paign lasted until the sur­ren­der of the German Armed Forces in Italy on May 2, 1945, 3 days after Adolf Hitler com­mitted sui­cide in his under­ground command bunker in the Nazi capital Berlin.

Second Battle of El Alamein: Bernard Montgomery watches British tanks advance, November 2, 1942Second Battle of El Alamein: Erwin Rommel, staff consult map

Left: In an open tank turret hatch sporting a black Royal Tank Corps beret adorned with the Tank Corps badge and a general’s insig­nia Bernard Law Montgomery (1887–1976) watches Eighth Army tanks advance during the Second Battle of El Ala­mein, Novem­ber 2, 1942. Mont­gomery con­tinued to com­mand the Eighth Army in Sicily and Italy until late 1943, when he was recalled to England and given com­mand of the 21st Army Group pre­paring for the 1944 D-Day inva­sion of Normandy in north­western occu­pied France. He was pro­moted to the rank of field marshal on Septem­ber 1, 1944, and remains one of the most renowned heroes in British mili­tary his­tory. Fittingly, he was in­vested with the title 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein in 1946.

Right: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (b. 1891) and staff consult maps of the Libyan battle­field. Leaving his Ital­ian allies in the lurch after losing the Second Battle of El Alamein (he claimed the Ital­ians lacked their own escape trans­port), Rom­mel and his panzer army retreated 1,500 miles (2,400 km) west across North­ern Libya until, in Jan­u­ary 1943, they crossed the border into the hills of Tunisia to meet their fate in the spring of 1943 in the final battles in North Africa. Shortly before the Axis sur­ren­der in Tunisia, Rom­mel was recalled to Europe and even­tually given com­mand of Army Group B in German-occupied France, tasked with pre­paring to meet the expected Allied inva­sion of For­tress Europe. He com­mitted sui­cide on Octo­ber 14, 1944, after being found vaguely con­nected to the July 20, 1944, plotters of the unsuc­cess­ful attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life.

Second Battle of El Alamein: German artillery moved to El Alamein frontSecond Battle of El Alamein: U.S.-supplied Sherman tanks during the Battle of El Alamein, November 5, 1942

Left: Its carriage towed by a half­track, a heavy German artil­lery weapon is moved into posi­tion during the first phase of the fighting at the Second Battle of El Alamein. The enemy had some 1,200 artil­lery pieces, half German and half Italian, compared to the Eighth Army’s 2,300.

Right: U.S.-supplied Sherman tanks of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, 1st Armored Division, move across a stark desert land­scape throwing up chocking sand and dust clouds during the Battle of El Alamein, Novem­ber 5, 1942. Oper­a­tion Super­charge, which began on Novem­ber 2, was the final phase of Mont­gomery’s deci­sive battle at El Alamein. After a costly 2‑day slogging match to pene­trate German defense lines and mine­fields, Eighth Army tanks finally broke through. Rom­mel ordered a with­drawal, and his broken for­ma­tions retreated west­wards across Libya, all the way to Tunisia. In November 1942, Anglo-Amer­i­can divi­sions landed in French Algeria and Morocco (Oper­a­tion Torch). Rommel’s old army, trapped between U.S. and British armies, surrendered in mid-May 1943, 4 weeks after the Desert Fox had vacated his North Afri­can com­mand post for even­tu­ally a new (and last) posting in German-occupied France.

From El Alamein to Tunisia, Axis Played Losing Hand, October 1942 to May 1943