The battle of El Alamein, which began shortly before ten o’clock on the evening of 23 October 1942, was the decisive battle of the Desert War. Victory for Bernard Law Montgomery and his Eighth Army was a huge morale boost for the British. As Churchill wrote in 'The Hinge of Fate', it could almost be said that ‘Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.’
But this was, from the start, a strange kind of desert battle. Though often caricatured, for example, as a fight between Lt General Montgomery and the brilliant German commander of the Afrika Korps, Erwin Rommel, in fact Rommel was away in Germany on sick leave when the battle began, only returning to the desert two days after the fighting had started. And rather than being a dramatic battle of movement across the immense spaces of the Western Desert in the style of early actions, El Alamein was to a large extent an attritional confrontation with both opposing forces trapped between the impenetrable (at least to motorized vehicles) marshes in the south and the Mediterranean Sea in the north. In this narrow band of desert – around 40 miles wide – around 200,000 British Commonwealth and Empire troops confronted 100,000 Axis soldiers.
Nor, in truth, did Montgomery win this battle by exercising leadership of innovative genius. Rather this was a struggle which suited his methodical approach and careful attention to detail. He commanded an Eighth Army that not only outnumbered the Afrika Korps on the ground, but also in the air. Moreover, the Afrika Korps was short of that most vital commodity in mechanized warfare
– petrol. Axis supply convoys had to run a gauntlet of Allied naval attacks across the southern Mediterranean – a problem the Eighth Army never had to face, since there were plenty of oil supplies to their rear in the Middle East.
Thus this combination of geography and lack of fuel forced the Afrika Korps into the unusual position of static defence. As Professor Robert Citino says, the German army – even before Nazi Blitzkreig – had always tried to fight ‘short, but lively wars’ in order to compensate for shortages of numbers and supplies. So it was no accident that, even before the battle began, it seemed as if Rommel’s men would need a miracle to win the forthcoming encounter.
Early in the morning of 24 October, special Allied mine clearing units moved forward to try and clear a path through the gigantic minefield the Afrika Korps had laid in front of them. The Germans and their allies had already been subjected to a huge artillery bombardment the night before – again reminiscent of the massive set piece battles of the First World War. Montgomery’s men then moved forward in the south – where they made little progress – and in the north, up to the coast, where the Australians had some success in penetrating the German lines. But it wasn’t until 1 November and the phase of the battle Monty had dubbed ‘Operation Supercharge’ that the Allied attack broke through Axis lines. Allied units – prominent amongst them the 2nd New Zealand Division – managed to push through the Italian defences in the centre/north of the battlefront in an area known as Kidney Ridge. (The New Zealand soldiers, under the command of the remarkable Lt General Sir Bernard Freyberg, were rated by Rommel as the finest troops he had ever fought).
The attack on Kidney Ridge was successful in large part because Montgomery knew that Rommel had sent tanks north to try and deal with the Australian offensive near the coast. Montgomery also knew – thanks to ULTRA intelligence gained from the breaking of German codes – all about Rommel’s dire shortage of fuel, and that consequently the Axis forces simply hadn’t the ability to move their armour about the battlefield with the flexibility that had marked their success in the past. As the historian Andrew Roberts has written, the propaganda image of Montgomery – who had placed a photograph of Rommel in his own command caravan – simply intuiting what his German opponent would do next on the ba
ttlefield is false. ‘When he [Montgomery] put Rommel’s picture up in his caravan,’ says Andrew Roberts, ‘he wanted to be seen to be almost reading his opponent’s mind. In fact he was reading his mail.’i
Despite an almost last ditch attempt to hold up the Allied armour at Tel el Aqqaqir it soon became clear to Rommel that the superior forces ranged against him would inevitably be victorious. So he now felt he had no option but to retreat. Hitler disagreed and ordered the Afrika Korps to stay where they were. ‘The utmost efforts are being made to send you the means to continue the fight,’ he wrote to Rommel. ‘Your enemy, despite his superiority, must also be at the end of his strength. It will not be the first time in history that a strong will has triumphed over the bigger battalions. As to your troops, you can show them no other road than that to victory or death.’ii
Rommel chose to ignore Hitler’s order – which was, in any case, altered to permit a retreat shortly afterwards. But Hitler’s intervention was typical of his increasing tendency to order his troops to go against the basic precepts of the ‘war of movement’ that had brought them success in 1940 in France, and in the summer of 1941 in the Soviet Union. Hitler’s desire to prevent his battlefield commanders exercising necessary discretion would be seen to greater – ultimately calamitous – effect the following month at Stalingrad.
On 4 November Rommel pulled Axis forces back to the town of Fuka.
Montgomery and the Eighth Army were victorious. But in the subsequent rejoicing in Britain and elsewhere two facts were often forgotten. The first was that nearly ten per cent of Montgomery’s force had been killed or wounded – a much higher rate than had been experienced by the British before – and second, Montgomery did not immediately move troops swiftly forward in Rommel’s wake to capitalize on the victory.
Montgomery’s greatest strengths as a commander – his attention to detail, his desire not to take risks and his methodical approach to Generalship – were also, in such circumstances, his greatest weakness. A flaw which would be demonstrated to even greater effect in the days immediately following the Allies' landing in Normandy in 18 months time.
Andrew Roberts, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War
, Allen Lane, 2009, p. 297ii
Peter G. Tsouras, Dictionary of Military Quotations
, Manas, 2006, p. 246