Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. – Winston Churchill
As part of our series of WW2 Battle Maps we look at a decisive moment of WW2, the Second Battle of EL Alamein.
Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck had managed to halt Rommel at the First Battle of El Alamein in July 1942, but the British 8th Army had now been driven out of Libya by Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika and were being pushed back into Egypt.
The Mediterranean to the north and an expanse of quicksand to the south made Alamein a perfect choke point. Its narrow position prevented the Desert Fox from outflanking the Commonwealth forces. Auchinleck’s subsequent offensive however, failed, and he was sacked by Churchill. At the time, the prime minister was under considerable domestic pressure to secure victory in North Africa. He replaced Auchinleck with the aggressive, but inexperienced, William Gott. Gott unfortunately was killed shortly after his appointment, when his plane was shot down returning to Cairo.
Churchill’s second choice was Bernard Montgomery, who immediately became a whirlwind of activity. Montgomery was an advocate of combined arms. His belief that the Army, Navy and Airforce should work closer together with shared objectives. Each branch would follow the same battle plan and would know where and what each were doing at any stage in an operation. He also went to great lengths to be seen by his troops as often as possible, often arranging the distribution of cigarettes. It was on one of his many trips to the frontlines that he was presented with his signature black beret by men of the Royal Tank Regiment.
In opposition was the now famous Desert Fox, Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel. The advance into Egypt had overextended his fragile supply lines and thanks to British code-breaking, few supply ships could slip past the allied blockades. His forces were reduced to just 3 days worth of fuel by the 25th of October. Resupplies by submarine and air were able to relieve Rommel to an extent and by the end of October, 16 days of supplies were available. Outnumbered, and with the Eighth Army being supplied with new tanks daily, Rommel knew he would be hard pressed to stop a British attack.
On the night of the 23rd of October, Montgomery began a 5 hour barrage of axis positions. Four infantry divisions advanced over the Axis minefields (the men were not heavy enough to trigger the mines) and the engineers followed, clearing a path for armoured units. A path barely wide enough for one tank was cleared through the mines but traffic jams soon formed, however in the north a salient was established. Montgomery flooded forces into the breakthrough to sustain the momentum. Rommel attempted to move forces from the south but a lack of fuel meant they were being left exposed and were easy pickings for allied air forces.
On the night of the 30th October the 9th Australian division had reached the coastal road and held it against counter attacks through to the 1st of November. By this point Rommel could see that the battle was lost and started to plan a retreat. Montgomery pressed home the advantage and the 2nd New Zealand and 1st Armoured divisions were able to force Rommel to commit his armoured reserves.
In the ensuing battle, the Axis forces lost over 100 tanks and Rommel asked for permission to retreat. Hitler promptly refused and Rommel ordered his men to hold their ground. Despite the fierce defence, the axis forces were beaten and a 12 miles gap opened in Rommel’s lines. His position overrun and his forces smashed, Rommel had no choice but to order a retreat. Montgomery continuously pressed the attack and by the 4th of November his armoured divisions had rolled over axis positions and into the open desert beyond.
The Second Battle of El Alamein cost Rommel 9000 dead, 15,000 wounded and over 35,000 captured. Montgomery’s forces suffered 5000 dead and 9000 wounded. It was the first time Britain and her Commonwealth had thoroughly beaten German ground forces and is seen as the turning point of the Second World War, alongside the concurrent battles of Stalingrad and Guadalcanal. The Suez Canal was secure and over the next few months, Rommel would be pushed back into Tunisia and Montgomery would link up with the Americans, who had landed in Algeria with Operation Torch, to push the Axis out of North Africa for good.