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The Second Battle of El Alamein

In every war, there are often a handful of battles that define the course of entire campaigns. The Second Battle of El Alamein was one of these: the dramatic and shocking British counteroffensive during the North Africa campaign of WW2 led to a complete defeat of the Axis forces in the region, and is often hailed as a turning point for the Allied war efforts in North Africa. This is a sample research paper that focuses on the battle from the viewpoint of military history.

The second battle of El Alamein

This paper analyzes the strategic backdrop upon which the Second Battle of Al Alamein was fought and the initial disposition of forces, major phases of battle, and outcome of the conflict. Moreover, understanding why and how certain events played out and what the essential elements causing victory are and how knowledge of the battle helps to understand important tactical lessons in the application of military science.

In particular, an analysis of how and why General Montgomery effectively broke and neutralized German armor and air power and why the strategic oversight by the German high command led to the insufficient reinforcement of Field Marsh Rommel plays a major role in how and why the battle played out as it did, and what lessons can be gleaned for future leaders.

The Second Battle of El Alamein was a decisive land and air offensive by the British Eighth Army under the command of General Bernard Montgomery aimed at destroying the German Panzer Army Africa controlled by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. As the first major successful land offensive of World War II on the part of the Allies, El Alamein represents a combined arms victory of air and land power and, in particular, one of the first successful uses of the newly designed and employed Mark IV tank units working in tandem with air and infantry support by the British army.

The battle itself took place from October 23rd 1942 through November 11th 1942, a twenty day operation. A large swath of desert in North Africa near the town of El Alamein, located west of Egypt along the coast. The Axis defensive position consisted of a heavily defended frontline, well fortified with antitank mines and numerous fixed gun emplacements with overlapping fields of fire. The British Eighth Army, based out of Egypt, attacked west out of their base of operations in Egypt and the Suez Canal, a vital strategic location that ensured British oil interests in the Middle East and Asia would continue to flow to the British Isles via the Suez.

This flat, open desert of North Africa was utilized to great effect by Montgomery, first by using a massive infantry advance to neutralize antitank mines and gun emplacements and then sending in his new armored divisions to hunt and destroy enemy armor. With the Axis armor defeated, the remaining infantry forces fell prey to the swift-moving and tactically superior Allied vehicles, enabling Montgomery to cut off vital water supply routes to his enemies. Bereft of supplies and devastated in terms of morale, the Axis forces surrendered en masse and victory belonged to the British.

Strategic factors

The North African campaign proved to be a turning point in the war against the Axis. By 1942, Europe itself, with the exception of the British Isles and a few neutral states such as Switzerland, had fallen completely to Axis domination. The German Reich and Italian fascists had taken over France, Norway, Denmark, and the Low Countries, and it appeared clear that German efforts to subvert and conquer the British Isles were next on the agenda. However, as Alfred Majdalany states, the

“defense of the United Kingdom itself was scarcely more important to Britain than the defense of Egypt” (Majdalany, 1965, p. 4).

Whoever controlled Egypt would control the Suez Canal, and thereby control the flow of valuable oil through that vital naval juncture.  As the “imperial lifeline to India”, the Suez offers transportation and access to resources from the entirety of Asia, an enormous and vitally important resource region for the British Empire (Majdalany, 1965, p. 5). Unlike in the previous World War, World War II was fought as a highly mobile war reliant on armored vehicles and mechanized infantry. Indeed, the “importance of oil supplies and the advent of the aeroplane” meant that if Egypt fell, Britain would lack the basic resources in order to carry on an effective war effort (Carver, 1962, p. 21).

Repeated setbacks and failed counter-offensives against Rommel’s forces in Africa meant that El Alamein would be the last major opportunity for an Allied effort to push the Germans away from the Suez and free North Africa from Axis occupation.

Rommel and the Axis leaders, however, knew the importance of North Africa as well. Unable to completely crush the British forces in over two years of fighting, the infamous “Desert Fox” returned to Europe to communicate with his commanders and to request additional supplies and manpower to repel the inevitable British counter-attack. Though highly talented, he accomplished goals and objectives in ways that were “not possible by the rules of reason” and the German high command tended to regard the North African campaign as secondary to the other fronts of the war and thus merely entrusted Rommel with token reinforcements so that he may continue his track record of success (Carver, 1962, p. 22).

According to the German high command, Rommel was still “in charge of nothing more than a small task force sent to stiffen the Italian ally”, since “North Africa was a lost cause” (Majdalany, 1965, pg. 16). Though the willingness to sacrifice an untenable situation is admirable, the decision of the German high command to simply cross out North Africa as a battleground must be called into question, as the Allies viewed North Africa as one of the most important fronts of the war, as it would enable future land operations against southern Europe and Italy, a country long since tired of the war and hardly a fervent ally in pursuit of Axis war aims.

Instead, however, the German high command decided to afford little attention to North Africa and later campaigns launched against the Axis from across the Mediterranean would prove vital in opening up new fronts for the liberation of Europe.

Operational setting, tactical situation, at the battle of El Alamein

El Alamein is an Egyptian coastal town on the northern end of Africa, bordered by the Suez Canal far to the east and Libya to the west. British forces, having faced numerous defeats in the year prior, had been forced further and further east to defend the Suez from Axis aggression. The arrival of Erwin Rommel and German reinforcements in 1941 to the under-performing Italian army group helped to turn the tide of the conflict in favor of the Axis, due to Rommel’s brilliant tactical maneuvers and campaigns across Cyrenaica, a region of Northern Africa near Egypt. At the time of the battle’s beginning on October 23rd 1942, Rommel had amassed 150,000 men and 600 tanks with 430 operational aircraft. Against this formidable force would come Montgomery’s 195,000 men, 1,000 tanks, and 530 operational aircraft (Carver, 1962, p. 55).

The battle itself would take place alone a forty mile front, extending from the Mediterranean Sea on the north to the Qattara Depression to the south. With the Axis forces facing east and the Allies west, both sides had built substantial fortifications and gun emplacements, though Rommel’s decision to lay nearly half a million mines in front of the line would prove to be a massive deterrent to effective counter-attacks by the British. With the mines in place, British armor could not support the infantry divisions, and without armor support, the infantry would be exposed and vulnerable in the hard ground of the North African desert, which often required explosives to allow infantry to dig in to the hard, compacted earth (Paris, 2002, p. 24).

Phase One: Breaking the line

Montgomery’s assault began on the night of October 23rd, at 21:40 hours. In line with conventional British infantry tactics, he ordered a massive artillery barrage from approximately nine hundred guns that shelled the entirety of the Axis line for twenty minutes. Following the end of that short barrage, the artillery was redirected to fire on the forward Axis positions only, in preparation for the British infantry advance. As the infantry advanced,

“the artillery and the bombers kept pounding away in front of them” (Moorehead, 1942, p. 96).

Leading with the infantry, Montgomery’s offensive lacked any use of armor in the opening phases of the battle.

Mine sweepers, sappers, and engineers followed the infantry to clear paths through the minefields to allow access for Allied armor. The British, highly trained in combat engineering, were able to clear paths to enable armor movement by 04:00, a remarkable achievement, given the conditions in which the British were expected to work (in part because the war with Hitler had taken its toll on British forces).

Though progress was steady, the British 7th Armoured Division met heavy resistance in the south. The advancing infantry paused their operations around seven in the morning to dig in  and allow further artillery and air support to soften the Axis positions ahead of them, although heavy casualties in mine sweeping teams meant that fewer paths could be opened to allow armor to move in and engage the Axis tanks (Carver, 1962, pg. 107).

Phase Two: The Axis begin to collapse

Shortly after dawn, allied air power continued to hammer away at the Axis forces. Minefields were cleared to the point where some limited movement of Allied armor could be possible, and a tank battle ensued near the end of the day. Though inconclusive and not a significant victory or defeat for either side, the meeting of the two armored groups was the driving purpose of Montgomery’s strategy. Ordering his tanks to “Find the Axis armor and fight it”, Montgomery hinged a great deal of his chances for victory on the new soldiers who just entered the war and vehicles of the British Eighth Army (Moorehead, 1942, p. 97).

Though the new British 6 pound guns mounted on fast moving half-tracks and light tank chassis should theoretically be able to penetrate German armor and aid in the advancement of infantry, Montgomery nonetheless did not know for certain if they would be successful. Despite this uncertainty, Moorehead states that:

“The British infantry had breached the Axis line and pulled up the mines; it was up to the tanks to do the rest” (Moorehead, 1942, p. 96).

Indeed, by month’s end, the Axis armored divisions had been completely destroyed and the operational effectiveness to launch a substantial counter-attack by the Germans had been almost completely destroyed.

Phase Three and Four: German counter-attack and Operation Supercharge

Unbeknownst to Montgomery, Rommel was not present for the opening days of the battle and only arrived back to the front from Europe after the situation for the Axis had nearly collapsed. Attempting to salvage the situation, Rommel decided tom“fling all his reserves in the north into a desperate attempt” (Carver, 1962, p. 137) only to be outgunned and outnumbered by British armored divisions.

Though there are numerous small actions by German commanders throughout the battle that stalled or even pushed back the British advance, the forces of the Commonwealth were too numerous and too well-equipped to be held back for long. With the German armor effectively destroyed, Rommel was in an “awful predicament” (Moorehead, 1942, p. 97). Increased attacks on German runways forced the few remaining air assets of Rommel to be grounded or unable to fly, and the dominance of Allied air power helped to crush the remaining German armor.

The finale to this phase of the battle was November 2nd, with Operation Supercharge, a massive tank assault by the British directly against German armor and antitank guns. Though the British 9th Armoured Division was almost entirely destroyed, three entire German Panzer Groups were crushed and the last bastion of Axis armor in El Alamein was vanquished.

The loss of well over a hundred tanks and several hundred trained crewmen was deemed tragic, but in the end an acceptable loss for eliminating the most important forces in the Axis disposition. Following this victory, the Germans were effectively routed. Though Rommel fought a dedicated rearguard action, most of the infantry divisions were left behind and captured by the Allies and only a handful of battered Axis tanks escaped. However, the attack of the British 9th Armoured had been likened to the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, so tragic were the losses.

Losing ground in North Africa

The Axis situation in El Alamein was grave, yet perhaps not impossible to achieve victory from. Unfortunately, the decision by the German high command to not reinforce the North African theater would prove to have drastic consequences, another example of Germany’s failed military strategies. Much of Rommel’s success in North Africa came as a result of his daring and bold action—aggressive and clever campaigning that would rip the enemy apart and then dart away to strike again. Operating with limited resources compared to the Allied forces, Rommel was forced to utilize the terrain and enemy operations to achieve victory.

However, at El Alamein, Rommel was forced into holding a defensive line against a vastly superior force. This created a situation in which Rommel’s initiative was taken  away and the force and pace of battle controlled by Montgomery. Moreover, without the addition of additional air forces, the Allied control of the skies limited both Rommel’s ability to maneuver his armor but also reduced his capacity to focus large amounts of firepower on specific areas via aerial bombardments.

In essence, with Rommel’s initiative and mobility removed due to the inopportune choice of giving battle in a defensive manner as well as his comparatively limited air power and weakened armor divisions, the commander was forced by Montgomery to watch a battle of attrition that the British would win. Indeed, the assault of the British 9th Armoured is telling enough—the loss of an entire tank division did not halt the advance of the British.

Though Rommel performed admirably given his limited resources, eventually he was forced to concede defeat and flee westwards with the remnants of his army group. Allied efforts to reduce and eliminate Axis supply lines after breaking through the German defensive line in phase one helped greatly to ensure surrender of isolated pockets of enemy units. Unable to link up with their commanders and comrades, Axis forces proved ineffective in maintaining structural and tactical cohesion in the face of enemy superiority. El Alamein teaches the important lesson of strategic planning and ensuring that, when faced with a superior enemy force, one must be capable of choosing one’s own battles. To be forced into a major battle when outgunned and outnumbered on the enemy’s terms, even with a prepared defensive position, is not ideal.

Reflecting on the Second Battle of El Alamein

An analysis of the Second Battle of El Alamein provides fascinating lessons for military leaders wanting more information on leading their troops. General Bernard Montgomery led an effective assault utilizing both his strategic and tactical advantages—the relative lack of importance attributed to North Africa by the German high command, the comparatively high importance placed on Egypt and the Suez by the Allies, and the significance of establishing air dominance and effectively neutralizing the enemy armor in an open field environment reflect the major themes of the battle at El Alamein. More than just a battle between two army groups, El Alamein represents a result of different strategic appropriation by respective commanders and is a valuable lesson as to why initiative and mobility remain critical skills to maintain in modern, mechanized warfare.

References

Carver, Michael. (1962). El Alamein. New York: Macmillan. Print.

Paris, M. (2002). El Alamein, The People’s Battle. (Cover story). History Today, 52(10), 21.

Majdalany, F. (1965). The Battle of El Alamein. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson. Print.

Moorehead, A. (1942). How Montgomery Smashed Rommel. Saturday Evening Post, 215(23), 15-97.

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