Study in Irony:
The Battle of El Alamein
Part 2: Rise of a Legend
By John R. Phythyon, Jr.
June 2017

For Part 1 of this series, click here.

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 hard-won victory.

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 his attack.

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.

A British sign marks a German minefield: "Stop! Go another 500 yds and Jerry will give you this command."

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 guns.

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 circumstances?

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.

Trojan Horse

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.

From a distance, you might think it was real, too.

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 direction.

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 detected.

Operation: Lightfoot

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 tanks.)

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.

Alamein, 23 October 1942: No. 3 Gun, C Troop, 47th Battery, 5th Field Regiment.

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 more.

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 efforts.

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.

Operation: Supercharge

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 hoped.

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 them.

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 done.

Rommel at Alamein.


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 his plan.

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 be successful.”

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 his retreat.

A German 88mm gun.

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 went.

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