The Battle of El Alamein
Part 2: Rise
of a Legend
By John R. Phythyon, Jr.
For Part 1 of this series, click
The Battle of
El Alamein was more than the turning point
in World War II. It was also the beginning
of the legend that was General Bernard Montgomery.
In the desolate wastes of the Egyptian desert,
Monty began his rise to glory. He had already
blunted the German-Italian offensive, forcing
Rommel to “punch himself out”
against the British dug-in positions. Now,
with the famed Afrika Korps stymied, it was
time for Montgomery to go on the attack, bringing
the offensive Churchill had been demanding
for months. Here Monty’s considerable
cunning was truly expressed, laying the way
to knocking the Axis out of Africa.
Despite having won a considerable victory
by stopping Rommel’s offensive and forcing
him to dig in, Monty knew Eighth Army wasn’t
yet ready for an offensive. The German armor
crews were much better trained, and their
tanks were superior. Entrenched as they were,
they could slice Eighth Army in its current
incarnation into pieces. Indeed, a hastily-staged
offensive might be just the thing Rommel needed
to regain the upper hand. Cautious by nature,
Monty wasn’t about to throw away his
Additionally, the British were exhausted.
They’d been on the run for most of the
summer and had just fought a series of extremely
difficult battles over the past few days.
They needed rest before they could once again
do battle with the dreaded Panzerarmee Afrika.
Deciding he would need at least seven nights
of good moonlight for his offensive, Montgomery
had to choose between the full moon periods
of September or October. Primarily because
he felt his army was poorly trained, especially
the armor units, he decided he couldn’t
possibly be ready by September and therefore
fixed 23 October 1942 as the date to launch
Churchill was, at best, nonplussed. He’d
been demanding an offensive since early in
1942, and he kept being told by his generals
he had to wait. The last time he was told
this, Rommel overran the British position
and nearly made it all the way to Alexandria.
He didn’t want a repeat of that, and,
in addition, General Eisenhower was to be
landing an Anglo-American offensive in North
Africa on 8 November. The French in North
Africa were impossible to read, but it was
felt they would be much more receptive if
there was a decisive British victory at El
Alamein. By waiting until late October for
his offensive, Monty was going to cut it pretty
close, and that made Churchill nervous.
Montgomery refused to move his date up, though,
threatening to resign if he couldn’t
have it his way. Churchill relented.
Over the next six weeks, Monty set to training
his crews. Fifty miles behind the Alamein
line, there was plenty of room to practice
and rehearse the battle. Eighth Army drilled
until their general was reasonably confident
of their performance on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, Rommel’s situation was
much worse. He knew he had to prevent the
British from breaking his line, or Africa
was all but lost. In yet another ironic twist,
this battle in the Second World War now resembled
the situation in the First. A static line
had to be held so the enemy could not press
the advantage. In World War I, that involved
trench warfare. With the terrain vastly different
at El Alamein, the equalizer would be mines.
The only way to slow down a well-organized
armor column in the desert was to lay a minefield
in its path. Thus, where their predecessors
dug trenches in France, the members of the
Panzerarmee Afrika dug minefields in the sand,
and reinforced them with artillery and antitank
Rommel’s health had finally deteriorated
to the point where Hitler ordered him to take
sick leave. This was a crushing blow to the
Afrika Korps. Too long they had lionized him.
No matter what happened, they were convinced
Rommel could get them out of it. It didn’t
matter that the British had stopped them cold,
that their supply lines were too long, that
they weren’t getting what they needed,
that they were crushingly low on gas. Rommel
would think of something. The Desert Fox would
turn defeat into victory. He always did. His
leaving left the Germans feeling as though
there was no way to survive. Without his cunning,
what chance did they have under such deplorable
Rommel was somewhat aware of this. He loved
his men as much they loved him, and he hated
abandoning them. He therefore met with his
generals before his departure and outlined
exactly how they were to defend the German-Italian
position. As he saw it, Montgomery had him
outgunned but would have to attack head-on,
trying to break through the German-Italian
line and then sprinting west.
Thus, there would be two minefields, the second
being thicker and wider than the first. Behind
these would be the majority of the infantry,
dug-in tanks, and antitank guns. This zone
would extend backward 5000 yards. The two
minefields and the primary defense position
were to encompass five miles. Behind them
would be tanks in two groups and a third line
of defense further back at the Rahman track.
The two tank groups were set up one in the
north and one in the south and positioned
so they could move to any breach in the line.
Justly fearing the Italians couldn’t
hold the British back by themselves, Rommel
split his beloved Afrika Korps, stationing
the 15th Panzer Division in the north and
the 21st in the south, sandwiching the Italians
between them. This way, he’d be able
to bring them in support of any breakdown
by the Italians in the middle of the line.
The Germans believed the Italian troops were
good but poorly commanded. This sandwiching
principle would allow German officers to take
command if necessary. The two best Italian
armored divisions were also split, with Littorio
Division pairing with the 15th and Ariete
Division teamed with the 21st.
Believing Montgomery would not attack before
he could return in six to eight weeks, Rommel
left Africa on 23 September, leaving strict
instructions to call him back should the British
attack sooner. General Stumme was left in
charge in his absence.
His destination was Semmering, Austria, but
he didn’t make his way directly there.
First, he went to Rome to implore Mussolini
to give the supply ships better protection.
Il Duce made a number of promises, which Rommel
correctly guessed to be empty.
Then he stopped in Berlin to visit Hitler
and the German High Command. He debriefed
the Fuehrer on what was happening in Africa
and begged him for more support. He tried
to outline what a huge opportunity Africa
was, going so far as to say it could be the
southern jaw of a pincer move through the
Middle East and Eastern Europe meeting in
Russia. No one in the High Command agreed,
seeing Africa only as a sideshow and thinking
Rommel was exaggerating his difficulties.
When he arrived in Semmering, Rommel was without
hope and poorly disposed towards recovery.
While the British were training and Rommel
was setting his defense, Monty was planning
his offensive. He knew it would be long, hard,
bloody fighting, and he surmised that the
key was to take the Germans and Italians by
surprise. The problem was the enemy held the
Himeimat Ridge, giving them a good view of
British maneuvers. How could Eighth Army sneak
up on their foe if Rommel’s scouts were
watching their every move?
The answer was subterfuge. Since he couldn’t
prevent the Germans from watching what he
was doing, Monty elected to give them a false
picture. His intent was to send his main thrust
from XXX Corps to the north. He therefore
needed Panzerarmee Afrika to think the attack
would be coming from XIII Corps in the south,
and that it was scheduled for two weeks later
than it was.
To accomplish this, Montgomery built an elaborate
Trojan horse. The British constructed dummy
trucks and guns and stationed them in the
north, so that there would not appear to be
a build-up there. To fool aerial photographers,
the north zone had to appear static for a
long period of time. Any indication that new
and additional units were moving in would
indicate an attack was imminent from that
Meanwhile, another set of dummy trucks, guns,
and tanks was slowly placed in the south in
addition to XIII Corps’s regular supplies.
This gave the illusion that the British were
building their forces there to make an assault.
They even went so far as to build a dummy
waterline off the main pipeline. It was made
solely of gasoline cans turned on their side,
but it photographed like the genuine article.
It wasn’t enough, though, to make it
look like the attack was coming from the south.
The British also had to give the impression
it wasn’t ready to go yet. Therefore,
the administrative preparations that would
indicate an imminent assault were left incomplete,
so the Germans not only would be expecting
the surge to come from the wrong direction,
but also that it was set for much later.
When it came time to build up for the assault,
everything was moved under cover of darkness.
By daylight, it was in position and either
replaced the dummy standing in for it or was
hidden underneath it. The hardest part was
getting X Corps up from the reserve area to
the staging area in the north, since the unit
contained two armored divisions (the 1st and
10th) comprising some 700 tanks and 4000 trucks.
Monty moved them up behind the line during
the daylight, disguising the movement as a
routine training march. Once night fell, everything
was moved into position. The tanks were hidden
under 700 dummy trucks. Other trucks and dummies
were taken out to replace the 4000 trucks
that had just arrived. Stores were hidden
under camouflage or were stacked in such a
way that they photographed as trucks.
By the time the offensive was ready to go,
General Stumme had no idea he was about to
be attacked. Monty had rolled his wooden horse
into Troy without the soldiers inside being
At 2140 hours on 23 October, the entire Eighth
Army artillery (nearly 900 guns) opened fire
on every known enemy gun position, shelling
them mercilessly for 15 minutes. The idea
was to cripple enemy artillery before moving
the tanks out. It was so impressive, for the
rest of the war “Alamein barrage”
came to be synonymous with blasting the daylights
out of the enemy.
At 2155 the guns stopped. XXX Corps moved
into position. At 2200, the guns resumed firing,
this time targeting the German-Italian forward
positions. XXX Corps advanced into No Man’s
Land towards the first minefield. The plan
was for them to have breached it by midnight,
spend an hour reorganizing, and then attack
the second minefield, clearing two corridors
through it by 0245 hours. (The operation was
morbidly codenamed “Lightfoot”
because XXX Corps would have to tread lightly
over the minefields to clear them for the
The first objective was achieved on time by
all four of XXX Corp’s infantry divisions.
The two armored divisions of X Corps began
their approach at 0200, but, by this time
the battle had broken down into total chaos.
The defenses were much tougher at the second
minefield, and fighting broke down into a
series of unrelated tiny battles, where no
one knew what exactly was happening. Fires
drew enemy mortar fire, making things more
chaotic. Before long, no group really knew
where it was or where anyone else was. The
sand of the desert had been thrown up into
the air to mix with the smoke and fire, making
getting an accurate account of position impossible.
This slowing of the infantry progress caused
roadblocks for the tanks behind them. Once
the infantry units lost their sense of direction,
it was much harder for the tanks to follow.
As the night wore on, the leading units could
only pray they were going in the right direction,
visibility being down to only a few feet.
They had no idea if they were carrying out
the operation correctly.
By dawn, the results were mixed. XXX Corps
had cut deeply into the enemy lines, but only
unit, the 2nd New Zealand Division with the
British 9th Armored, had reached its objective.
Everyone else from XXX Corps was short of
their intended targets, and X Corps’s
tanks were still stuck in the second minefield.
A supporting attack from XIII Corps in the
south, had failed to breach the second minefield.
In many ways, it was a good night’s
work, but it wasn’t successful enough
for the operation to proceed as planned.
Things could have been worse. On the Axis
side of the line, the German-Italian communication
network had been knocked out by the night’s
shelling. They didn’t have a clear idea
of what was happening aside from an all-out
assault along the entire Alamein line. General
Stumme went to the front to get a picture
of the situation. He promised to go only so
far as the 90th Light Division, which was
in reserve behind the line, but instead he
went all the way to the front. His car was
fired upon, killing a staff colonel he’d
taken with him. The driver wheeled the car
away just as Stumme was preparing to jump
to safety, throwing him. He hung on for awhile
but died of a heart attack as the driver tried
to get them out of there. Thus, the Panzerarmee
learned nothing about the situation but lost
its commander-in-chief. It wasn’t until
noon that Rommel received a call from Hitler
sending him back to Africa.
During the day on the 24th, the DAF and USAF
completely established air superiority, bombing
Axis positions and keeping the Luftwaffe out
of the fight. Meanwhile, the northern corridor
through the minefield was fully cleared by
1500 hours. It was now possible for the armored
divisions to get through and both receive
and provoke counterattacks from the Germans.
Monty intended for Afrika Korps to exhaust
itself in this endeavor. He wanted to draw
Rommel into a battle of attrition the Axis
could not hope to win.
By late afternoon, the infantry bridgehead
was fully established and the 1st Armored
Division of X Corps had taken up positions
behind it as planned. However, 10th Armored
Division did not fare as well. They got bogged
down in a shooting war with Axis forces on
the near side of the Miteirya Ridge. By nightfall,
X Corps had only completed half its objective.
Meanwhile, 1st Armored was counterattacked
by the 21st Panzer and Littorio Divisions.
The British had had time to establish position
and therefore found themselves on a good defensive
field. They also had brought American-made
Sherman tanks, which heretofore the Germans
had not encountered. The Shermans proved equal
to the best German tanks, and the battle was
fought to a draw by nightfall, with both sides
losing similar numbers of tanks. This was
exactly what Monty wanted. He was willing
to trade the Germans tank for tank. He had
Pitched battles through the night established
more British gains. By morning of the 25th,
XXX Corps had blown a hole six miles wide
and five miles deep in the center of the German-Italian
defenses. Five armored divisions were in the
gap between the first and second defense stage
of the Axis positions and ready to provoke
and smash counterattacks, which began shortly
after dawn. The 15th and Littorio came at
the British along the northern corridor as
hoped. The 75mm guns of the Shermans enabled
Eighth Army to deal with the German 88mm antitank
guns from a distance, and repeated bombing
by the DAF and USAF further hampered the Axis
By nightfall, 15th and Littorio were down
to 31 of their 119 tanks. The 21st Panzer
and Ariete Divisions remained paralyzed in
the south due to the threat of an attack from
XIII Corps and a lack of gasoline. So far,
everything was going Monty’s way.
Rommel arrived back in Africa on the afternoon
of the 25th to the relief of his men. On his
way, he stopped in Rome for the latest information.
When he got it, he once again implored the
Italian High Command to send him more gasoline
and begged the attached German Army Commission
to reassign every available U-boat to the
task of protecting the tankers. As usual,
he got little for his efforts.
The following day, Montgomery came to the
conclusion the offensive was slowing down.
The British had fully succeeded in opening
their northern and southern corridors through
the minefields, but they could not exit them.
While they could repel any Axis counterattacks,
they simply couldn’t make any headway
into pushing them farther back. The break-in
had not become the breakout for which they
Thus, Monty elected to close Operation: Lightfoot.
XXX Corps had sustained terrible losses in
the fighting, and both XXX and X Corps were
exhausted from four days of hard fighting.
Montgomery recognized they needed a rest.
He therefore ordered them to secure their
positions, and then sent fresh troops to relieve
This news was met with little enthusiasm
in London, where Churchill openly questioned
what Monty was doing and planned to send him
a blowing up via telegram before he was talked
out of it by more sensible officials. Nevertheless,
the prime minister didn’t want to hear
the offensive was over. It hadn’t yet
succeeded in full. But Monty wasn’t
Rommel, on the other hand, witnessed the
15th and Littorio Divisions launch a counterattack
on Kidney Ridge that was beaten back severely,
leaving him impressed with the British. Consequently,
he ordered Afrika Korps reunited. The 90th
Light Brigade was called up from reserve,
and the 21st Panzer and Ariete Divisions were
recalled from the south, even though he knew
they wouldn’t have enough gas to get
back if that became necessary. As if to drive
the point miserably home, Rommel received
word the large tanker, Proserpina, was sunk
by the Royal Navy in sight of Tobruk.
The British rested for two days before launching
the next phase of the attack – Operation:
Supercharge. On the 28th, the 9th Australian
Division offered the offensive’s prelude,
an attack to the north designed to convince
Rommel that Lightfoot was still on, and the
objective was still a breakthrough to the
north. The 1st Armored Division of X Corps
had been absorbing German counterattacks for
two days. Now, they were ordered back and
folded into the 2nd Armored Division, so heavy
were their losses.
Rommel took the bait, sending the 90th Light
Brigade and the 21st Panzer Division to resist
the breakthrough he thought the British were
attempting. British intelligence had already
spotted evidence Afrika Korps was reunited,
and this confirmed it. Monty decided to modify
With the German forces concentrated entirely
in the north, the British would attack at
the seam of the Germans and Italians, with
the weight of the thrust falling largely on
Italian shoulders. Monty’s goal was
the Rahman track and the Tel el Aqqaqir Ridge
to the west of it. This was the base of the
Axis defense and its communications link to
the coast road. If it were knocked out, the
British could achieve their coveted breakout.
However, to rearrange his forces would take
a couple days. That meant the 9th Australian
Division would have to continue drawing German
fire to cover the maneuvers of the rest of
Eighth Army. It was a terrible job, but Monty
didn’t shrink from giving them the orders.
On the night of the 30th, the 9th Australian
Division continued its push towards the Mediterranean.
Drawing German fire as planned, they sustained
heavy losses. However, they managed to cross
the rail track and the coastal road, where
they were joined by a regiment of tanks. As
a result, two German battalions were almost
completely cut off. Rommel was forced to launch
an all-out counterattack by the 90th Light
and 21st Panzer assisted by Stuka dive-bombers
to rescue them.
This was evidence that Monty’s subterfuge
was working. Rommel was drawn into a costly
exchange in the wrong place just hours before
Supercharge was set to launch. Moreover, it
appeared he still thought the thrust of the
offensive was to the north.
On the night of 2 November at 0105 hours,
the operation began. By 0530, the entire bridgehead
of the attack was secure, clearing the way
for the final assault. The 9th Armored Brigade
was to target the Tel el Aqqaqir Ridge, blasting
its way across the Rahman track and knocking
out the enemy gun screen. Montgomery told
his generals he was willing to accept 100%
casualties in this phase of the plan to achieve
his objective. This was the logical extension
of his attitude towards Operation: Supercharge.
In his general orders to all of Eighth Army
before the attack he wrote, “This operation
if successful will result in the complete
disintegration of the enemy and will lead
to his final destruction. It will therefore
The good news for the 9th Armored was it had
been shored up to 121 tanks, 72 of which were
Shermans and Grants. Getting the unit into
position, though, was hell. They started their
11-mile march in total darkness due to the
moon not rising until 0100 hours. Along the
way, the dust that had been churned up from
all the fighting was carried into the air
and driven by a strong headwind, blinding
them. It was difficult to see and slow going,
and 12 tanks were lost to mines as a result
of their not being able to navigate cleanly.
By 0545, the scheduled start time of their
attack, only two of the three regiments were
in place. With night rapidly failing, those
units wanted to proceed on schedule, but the
decision to wait for everyone was made, and
the assault didn’t being until 0615.
At first, it worked brilliantly. The Axis
forces were completely surprised by the presence
of enemy tanks suddenly on top of them, and
many of them leaped out of their nests to
surrender. However, by the time the sun rose,
they were not through the antitank positions.
The half-hour delay proved deadly. The battle
now turned into a massacre, with the British
staring down the barrels of the guns they
were supposed to have subdued by dawn.
The only thing for the Brits to do was to
charge. The 9th Armored lost 70 tanks in an
hour, but they did take out 35 German guns.
In the end, the 9th sustained 75% losses before
the 2nd Armored Division arrived to relieve
them. When help arrived, the objective of
smashing through the Rahman track and Tel
el Aqqaqir had not been achieved.
Rommel, however, had seen enough. He didn’t
believe his forces, exhausted from 11 days
of fighting, could withstand another British
charge. He ordered a withdrawal that night
back 60 miles to Fuka, which began on the
3rd, and informed Hitler of his decision.
A modest sortie by the Royal Dragoons swept
through on the night of the 2nd, putting them
in position to witness the retreat. Thus,
Monty knew he had Rommel on the run.
Still, though, he could not break through
at Tel el Aqqaqir. The line of antitank guns
proved impregnable, and it became obvious
they were offering cover fire for their rest
of the Axis forces. The only way to catch
Rommel was to knock them out.
At 1330, though, Rommel received the cruelest
irony of the entire battle. Hitler wired him,
promising air support and supplies and ordering
Panzerarmee Afrika to fight to the death.
The man who had never considered Africa more
than a sideshow and who refused to give Rommel
the help he needed, now suddenly was concerned
enough that he was willing to force his soldiers
and their commander into a suicide mission!
Rommel had no choice but to obey, halting
The following day, British forces ran into
Afrika Korps’s hastily constructed gun
screen. It took most of the day for the 10th
Armored Brigade to root it out. At 1530, unwilling
to sacrifice his men, Rommel was forced to
cut and run. He was so short on transports
he had to abandon the Italian infantry, leaving
them behind so as to save what was left of
the German motorized divisions. The Italians
were left to walk or surrender. By nightfall,
the once-proud Panzerarmee Afrika was beaten
and on the run.
The British pursuit was disorganized and slow.
Monty was still cautious, fearing the crafty
Desert Fox could draw his pursuers into a
bad exchange. Moreover, after 13 days of continuous
battle, Eighth Army was exhausted and ill-equipped
to focus on chasing Rommel across Africa.
Then, in the greatest irony of the entire
campaign, on 6 November, a torrential rainstorm
broke over Egypt, turning the desert into
a bog and making pursuit next to impossible.
Rommel was able to flee 1500 miles to Mareth
in Tunisia. It would take until May of 1943
to finally force the Germans out of Africa,
but it didn’t matter. The tide of the
entire war had turned. Hitler would soon know
defeat at Stalingrad. If he had listened to
Rommel, German-Italian forces from the Middle
East might have been able to support the Eastern
Front and changed the course of the war. The
British would have been out of it and unable
to assist the Americans in Western Europe.
Ironically, this sideshow theater (and more
specifically his ignoring its importance)
cost Hitler the war. Churchill later said,
“Before Alamein, we never had a victory.
After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”
More importantly, in the sands of Egypt, the
British found a general who would lead them
not just to victory but to greatness. By ignoring
Africa, Hitler created one of the scourges
of the Axis powers in Bernard Montgomery.
He became a legend not just by taking over
Eighth Army and teaching them how to beat
Rommel, but by leading it across Europe, vanquishing
German and Italian forces everywhere they
History is full of little ironies. That the
entire war should turn on a battlefield so
remote from the central part of the fighting
and the importance of which was so misunderstood
is perhaps the greatest one of World War II.
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John R. Phythyon, Jr. is a freelance
writer and an award-winning game designer
living in Lawrence, Kansas. Read more of his
work at www.johnphythyon.com.