The Second Battle of El Alamein, 23 October – 11 November, was a decisive turning point in the desert war.
Doctrinal changes introduced by Bernard Montgomery, assisted by massive advantages in supply produced a much-needed Allied victory that brought the dominance of Erwin Rommel’s formidable Afrika Korps to an end.
Here are ten facts about the Battle of El Alamein.
1. Bernard Montgomery commanded the Allied forces
Bernard Montgomery was born in London in 1887 and trained at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.
He went to war in 1914 as a lieutenant but suffered a bullet wound to the chest in October of that year during an attack on the village of Meteren. At nightfall he was recovered by stretcher bearers and taken to an Advance Dressing Station where his wound was considered fatal and a grave was dug for him. Fortunately he pulled through. He spent the rest of the war as a Staff Officer.
In his memoir, Montgomery describes his frustration with the British Army of the First World War, remarking on the ‘little contact between the generals and the soldiers’ and the former’s ‘disregard for human life’.
Montgomery went to war again in 1939 in command of the Third Division, serving during the Fall of France in 1940. In August 1942 he was made commander of the Eighth Army.
2. Erwin Rommel commanded the German forces
Erwin Rommel was born in Heidenheim in 1891, to a family with no military tradition. Nevertheless, in 1910, he joined the German infantry and began the First World War as a lieutenant. By September 1914 he had already earned an Iron Cross.
In October 1917, now stationed on the Italian Front, Rommel was set the task of capturing Italian strongholds around Mount Matajur in the Alps. In a series of daring assaults, Rommel captured the entire mountain, staking a claim to almost 20 miles of territory and taking almost 9,000 prisoners.
By 1939 Rommel had advanced to colonel and in February 1940 was appointed to the 7th Panzer Division, his first armoured command. He showed an instant affinity for armoured warfare, which was well suited to his bold, decisive style.
In 1941, with the Italians floundering, Rommel was placed in command of German forces in North Africa.
3. The Allies enjoyed early success in North Africa…
The opening clashes of the desert campaign took place in Egypt and Libya and saw Field Marshall Wavell conduct successful operations against the Italian garrisons east of Sidi Birrani.
These early encounters were notable for two reasons; though the Italians enjoyed numerical superiority of 4:1 they were at a disadvantage in almost every other conceivable way, and the British employed a successful doctrine of coordination, using tanks, artillery and anti-tank guns together. Sidi Birrani, Bardia and Tobruk fell to the Allies who totally outfought the Italian defenders.
4. …but the arrival of the Afrika Korps changed everything
In the wake of successful operations against the Italians, the arrival of the Afrika Korps under Erwin Rommel in February 1941, changed the situation overnight.
Most notable was the change in British doctrine, which saw the coordinated approach that had worked so well against the Italians, replaced by a seemingly insane fashion for sending unsupported armoured formations to seek out the enemy tanks.
In contrast, the Germans had no intention of engaging in tank versus tank battles, believing the natural enemy of the tank to be artillery. Rommel kept his tanks behind a dug-in anti-tank screen, laced with the deadly 88mm. When his tanks did attack, they did only with support from the artillery.
This clash of doctrines resulted in heavy casualties for the British during Operations Battleaxe and Crusader in 1941.
The underlying reasons for this apparently crazy approach by the British lay in the inferiority of their primary anti-tank weapon, the 2-pdr. Almost all British tanks were equipped with the 2-pdr, which was only capable of engaging German tanks at a range of 500 yards or less.
The fearsome German 88mm was capable of destroying British tanks at ranges up to 2,000 yards, and even their 50mm Pak 38 was effective up to 1000 yards. This disadvantage meant the British tanks could do little else but charge forward if they were to have any chance of destroying the German armour.
Until the Allies possessed weapons capable of bridging this gap in anti-tank technology, their options were limited.
5. The importance of supply
At El Alamein, the British enjoyed overwhelming material superiority. In August alone, 446 guns, 254 tanks, including a shipment of Grants from America, and 72,192 tons of stores arrived.
As well as a quantitative advantage, the British saw qualitative improvements in their equipment too. The more powerful 6-pdr anti-tank gun, whose production had been delayed in the wake of Dunkirk leaving the British dependent on the 2-pdr, had now arrived in sufficient numbers to almost entirely replace the 2-pdr.
The influx of American Grant tanks was beneficial; the Grant mounted a dual-purpose 75mm gun, which increased the effectiveness of British firepower in the face of Rommel’s Panzers. But El Alamein also marked the advent of the Sherman M4, which mounted the 75mm gun in its turret rather than in a sponson at the side like the Grant.
With both the Sherman and the Grant capable of firing high explosive as well as armour piercing shells, the British now had a better chance of taking out German artillery, which had exacted such a heavy toll on British tanks in earlier desert encounters.
6. The arrival of ‘Monty’
The appointment of Bernard Montgomery as commander of the Eighth Army marked a turning point for British forces in the desert. Though the Eighth Army’s superiority of resources was the decisive factor at Alamein, its effect owed much to Montgomery’s tactical and organisational changes.
Crucially, Montgomery introduced new training, applying the lessons of earlier campaigns in the desert and reintroduced the doctrine of all-arms cooperation. Monty commented:
‘It had been generally accepted that the plan in a modern battle should aim first at destroying the enemy’s armour, and that once this had been accomplished, the unarmoured portion of his army would be dealt with readily. I decided to revise this concept and to destroy first the unarmoured formations. While doing this I would hold off the armoured divisions, which would be tackled subsequently.’
7. Monty tested his new doctrine at Alam Halfa
The first test for Monty’s new doctrine came in late August at the Battle of Alam el Halfa. He established a strong layback position along the Alam Halfa Ridge, the taking of which would be a prerequisite to any advance Rommel might attempt toward Alexandria.
Monty planned to lure the Afrika Korps against his anti-tank guns and artillery dug-in along the ridge and he sent two squadrons of Crusader tanks out to patrol south of the ridge to draw the panzer divisions in, in case they were intending to bypass it.
The Afrika Korps arrived in the midst of a sandstorm. British anti-tank gunners held fire until the German tanks were within 300 yards. The Germans were outnumbered but benefited from the addition of the new Panzer IV ‘Special’ armed with a long-barrelled, high velocity 75mm gun.
These new Panzers out-ranged the Grants, twelve of which were soon in flames. But while the Germans focused on the tanks, they failed to consider the possibility of an anti-tank screen, which went on to claim 22 of their own machines.
Significantly, the Germans were not able to draw out the British armour, which stayed safely behind the protection of the anti-tank screen. Rommel commented that ‘the British showed little desire to make a real fight of it’. He went on to remark ‘there was no need for them to do so, since time – as far as material was concerned – was working in their favour’.
8. El Alamein was unusual in the context of the North African Campaign
The Second Battle of El Alamein, compared to previous desert battles, was conducted under unusual circumstances. Firstly, the area of operations was narrow, limiting the role of tanks and manoeuvre. Secondly, the British approach was made possible by their overwhelming material superiority and air supremacy.
9. Resemblance to the Battle of Amiens, 1918
The battles of 1918, particularly Amiens, made abundantly clear the power of combined arms warfare, that is the coordination of two or more of the infantry, artillery, tanks and air power. This critical lesson was enshrined in the Field Service Regulations of 1935, which highlighted concentration of effort and all-arms coordination among the basic principles of war.
However, in the early battles against Rommel’s Afrika Korps, this doctrine was seemingly abandoned. The reasons for this are complex but it resulted in the Eighth Army throwing their tanks, unsupported, into battle to seek out a decisive clash with German armour.
Rommel’s forces, imbued with the lessons of ‘Achtung Panzer!’ and using tanks and artillery in cooperation, cut a swathe through the British tanks in actions during Operation Crusader and Battleaxe.
At El Alamein, Monty reintroduced the doctrine of all-arms cooperation to stunning effect. Alamein was in essence an updated version of the 1918 battles, using artillery in support of infantry to create a gap in the enemy line, which was then exploited by the armour.
Rather than risking his armour against the German artillery, Monty allowed Rommel’s tanks to give away their own locations by drawing their fire using light tanks and then targeted them with heavy tanks.
10. ‘The end of the beginning’
On 10 November, 1942, Winston Churchill addressed assembled dignitaries at the Lord Mayor’s Luncheon in Mansion House.
He was finally able to report a victory for the Allies in the desert. He noted that the battle had not been fought ‘for the sake of gaining positions or so many square miles of territory’ but to ‘destroy the armed force of the enemy and to destroy it at a place where disaster would be most far-reaching and irrecoverable’.
In yet another noted turn of phrase, he went on to caution:
‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Henceforth Hitler’s Nazis will meet equally well armed, and perhaps better armed troops. Hence forth they will have to face in many theatres of war that superiority in the air which they have so often used without mercy against other, of which they boasted all round the world, and which they intended to use as an instrument for convincing all other peoples that all resistance to them was hopeless