Alam el Halfa, Egypt September 5, 1942

The yearslong back-and-forth Western Desert Campaign (June 11, 1940 to Febru­ary 4, 1943) in the scrubby desert waste­lands of West­ern Egypt and East­ern Libya had reached a stale­mate at the end of July 1942, when both Allied and Axis sides licked their wounds in the wake of the quick fall of the British fortress of Tobruk, the best deep­water port in Eastern Libya (June 20–21, 1942; nearly 33,000 Allied sol­diers taken pri­soner) followed on the heels by the First Battle of El Ala­mein (July 1–27, 1942, over 13,000 casual­ties on each side). The British Eighth Army under Gen. Claude Auchin­leck had finally fought the aggres­sive, resource­ful German Field Marshal (since June 21) Erwin Rom­mel’s Panzer­armee Afrika (aka Afrika Korps) to a stand­still at the small Egyp­tian rail­way station and out­post known as El Ala­mein. The two bel­lig­erent armies were now roughly 60–70 miles (95–112 km) from Alex­an­dria, Egypt, head­quarters of the power­ful British Medi­ter­ra­nean Fleet, which blocked Ital­ian and German rein­force­ments and sup­plies from reaching Rom­mel. To the east of Alex­an­dria lay the Nile Delta and the Suez Canal, which con­nected the Medi­ter­ra­nean Sea with the Indian Ocean and British India, and beyond Suez the oil­fields of the Middle East, pos­ses­sion of which was important strategically to both sides.

Auchinleck knew that his battered soldiers (around 30,000 combat troops) would not be able to push off from El Ala­mein and take the offen­sive until Septem­ber 1942 at the ear­liest, this after retraining and reor­ga­nizing his army. Criti­cal to reor­ga­nizing his army was the arrival of infan­try replace­ments, supplies of every descrip­tion, but espe­cially Amer­i­can armor (300 Sher­man M4 medium tanks, one hun­dred 105mm M7 self-propelled howit­zers, ammu­ni­tion, spare parts, and 150 in­struc­tors). Auchin­leck also knew that Rom­mel’s over­ex­tended Panzer­armee Afrika—short 7,000 sol­diers who had been captured in First Battle of El Ala­mein, short also friendly air support, and short trans­port to deliver replace­ments, ammu­ni­tion and fuel to his units—was com­pelled to renew its relent­less drive east before British supe­ri­ority in men, armor, and ma­té­ri­el made a differ­ence in the out­come. How­ever, before Auch­in­leck could plan his army’s static defense at El Ala­mein, British Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Churchill deposed him and replaced him with Lt. Gen. Ber­nard Law Montgomery.

The new commander in chief’s can-do attitude, metic­u­lous plan­ning and prepa­ra­tion, aug­mented by rein­force­ments of all kinds, bolstered the strength of the now 150,000-strong Eighth Army. From British Ultra intel­li­gence decrypts, Mont­gomery was ready for Rom­mel’s attempt to breach the El Ala­mein defen­sive line at Alam el Halfa. Alam el Halfa was a ridge 15 miles (24 km) south­east of El Ala­mein (see right edge of map below). The ridge was vital to the Eighth Army for holding the El Ala­mein line and to any German drive along the Egyptian coast to Alexandria and the Nile Delta.

Rommel made his move on the night of August 30, 1942. He had 128,000 German and Ital­ian troops and 535 tanks but barely enough fuel and ammu­ni­tion to make his break­through work unless it were quick. The first night he was stymied by British mine­fields, air assaults, mortars, and the stout resis­tance of ground troops. En­trenched atop Alam el Halfa, waiting for Rom­mel’s armor, were a British tank bri­gade and a divi­sion each of artil­lery and infan­try. Two nights later Rom­mel’s tanks were out of fuel and con­fronted by every tank in the Eighth Army. British field artil­lery and air sorties pum­meled the static Axis armored units. On the morning of Septem­ber 2, Rommel called off his offen­sive. The next day the Axis retreat started. On this date, Septem­ber 5, 1942, the Battle of Alam el Halfa ended. Vic­tory boosted the morale of Eighth Army sol­diers and brass and assured them that the next time they met Rommel’s army, which they did seven weeks later at the Second Battle of El Ala­mein (October 23 to November 11, 1942), they’d come out victors again.

El Alamein and Environs, Battleground for British and Axis Forces, July–November 1942

Battle of Alam el Halfa: Map of El Alamein and Environs, July–November 1942

Above: Map of the El Alamein and Alam el Halfa battlefields, July–November 1942. The Alam el Halfa Ridge is at the right margin of the map. Rommel sought to swing around the Eighth Army’s left flank during the Battle of Alam el Halfa and make for the coastal high­way to Alexan­dria. Mont­gomery massed tanks of an armored bri­gade atop the ridge, stopping German probes of the ridge cold. That night Rom­mel’s Afrika Korps con­tin­gent was out of fuel and con­fronted by all the tanks of the Eighth Army, which had gathered around the ridge to block the Germans’ way. Through­out the day, the British massed seven field artil­lery regi­ments, which pum­meled the static German and Italian armored units within their range. The destruct-a-thon was assisted by 125 sorties flown by the British Desert Air Force. The six‑day Battle of Alam el Halfa cost the Eighth Army 1,750 men killed, wounded, or cap­tured and 67 tanks plus a modest amount of artil­lery and anti­tank guns. Rommel’s Panzer­armee sus­tained 1,859 German troops killed, wounded, and missing, as well as 49 German tanks, 55 pieces of artil­lery, and 300 trucks destroyed. The Ital­ians lost 1,051 men, 22 guns, 11 tanks, and 97 other vehicles.

Battle of Alam el Halfa: Erwin Rommel in Libya, 1942Battle of Alam el Halfa: Bernard Law Montgomery during Second Battle of El Alamein, November 1942

Left: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of the German forces in North Africa, with his aides during the Western Desert Campaign, spring 1942. Since June 1941 Axis and British forces had been trading blows across unforgiving reaches of the Libyan desert in a con­test to gain con­trol of the Eastern Medi­ter­ra­nean. Nick­named “the Desert Fox” (Wuesten­fuchs), Rommel and his Ital­ian allies seemed to be gaining the upper hand with the British loss of Tobruk for­tress and deep-water harbor in June 1942, which put the Germans one step closer to shutting down Britain’s naval base at Alexan­dria; gaining con­trol of the Suez Canal, the British life­line to the British-held Indian sub­continent; and securing or destroying the Middle East’s valuable oil fields.

Right: Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery watches British Eighth Army tanks maneu­vering during the Second Battle of El Ala­mein, Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 11, 1942. The British Eighth Army broke the enemy’s lines and British war­planes swept the enemy from the sky. By Novem­ber 4 Rommel’s army was reeling back­wards across the Libyan desert to the safety of Italian-held Tunisia over one thou­sand miles to the west. Chur­chill was thrilled by Mont­gomery’s sound defeat of Rommel, famously saying, “It may almost be said, ‘Before Ala­mein we never had a victory. After Ala­mein we never had a defeat’.” Inter­estingly, Mont­gomery’s “British” army, which adopted the nick­name “Desert Rats” for them­selves, was com­prised of men and women from the British Common­wealth (Indian sub­con­ti­nent, Southern Africa, Aus­tra­lia, and New Zealand), France, Greece, as well as Great Britain.

BBC Presentation: Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika vs. Montgomery’s Eighth Army, North Africa 1942

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