Battle of Alam el Halfa
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseAlthough his offensive was halted at El Alamein, Egypt, Erwin Rommel knew that he needed to push on before the British and Commonwealth forces could regroup, thus despite his poor supply situation he launched a new offensive on El Alamein on 30 Aug 1942. Italian infantry divisions, supported by German 164th Division, was to attack the British defenses on the northern half of the line, with the goal of pinning down the defenses for the main thrust in the south. The southern attack, spearheaded by tanks of German 15th Panzer Division and 21st Panzer Division, was to push through what Rommel perceived as the weaker end of the defensive line, and then turn north to encircle and destroy the remainder of the Allied troops that were facing the Italians.
ww2dbaseOn the Allied side, the newly arrived Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery, commanding officer of the British Eighth Army, had the advantage of knowing, from Ultra intelligence, that the Axis offensive was being mounted. He placed the Australian 9th Division, South African 1st Division, and Indian 5th Division on the northern sector of the defensive line, backed up in reserve by tanks of the British 23rd Armoured Brigade behind the minefields. To the south, the New Zealand 2nd Division held a 5-mile-long section south of the Ruweisat Ridge, but a 12-mile-long stretch of the line was intentionally left relatively unguarded. It was Montgomery's intention to allow Axis forces to penetrate Allied lines there, only to have a trap sprung on them from the flanks.
ww2dbaseRommel launched the offensive after sundown on 30 Aug 1942. With a bright full moon above them, the attack column was spotted by British aircraft, strafing them while calling in Wellington bombers, which caused further havoc. While the Axis column maneuvered through the minefield, 7th Motor Brigade and 4th Armoured Brigade of the British 7th Armoured Division harassed it, causing casualties that included General Georg von Bismarck of the German 21st Panzer Division, who was killed by mortar fire shortly into 31 Aug. By noon of 31 Aug, despite casualties, Axis forces cleared the minefield about six hours behind schedule, and prepared for a major thrust; German 15th Panzer Division was launched first at 1300, followed by German 21st Panzer Division one hour later. As the tank battle began, German Panzer IV F2 tanks scored kills first with their greater range, but British and Australian guns prevented a German breakthrough and foiled an attempt to outflank the defensive positions. By the time this first offensive was called off at sunset, the Germans lost 22 tanks and the British 21.
ww2dbaseDuring the night of 31 Aug, British bombers returned, bombing the Axis supply lines. Already short on fuel, Rommel was forced to keep the tanks of the German 21st Panzer Division inactive to conserve fuel on the following day, fighting only with the 15th Panzer Division. The tanks of 15th Panzer Division launched its attack at dawn, but the attack was quickly slowed by a flank attack by the British 8th Armoured Brigade, though it caused little casualty. Meanwhile, Italian Littorio and Ariete Armoured Divisions, along with the German 90th Light Division, began to engage positions held by New Zealand troops. To make matters worse, in the morning of 2 Sep, armored cars of the British 4th Armoured Brigade was able to reach an Axis supply unit of 300 trucks near Himeimat, destroying 57 of them, forcing Italian tanks to disengage from the front lines in order to fall back to protect the supply. Realizing that that by this time the Allies not only had air superiority but the initiative, Rommel decided to call off the offensive. He later noted that lack of fuel and Allied air superiority as the main reasons for this decision; it was apparent that he had no idea the Allies were able to decode Axis messages, thus allowing better defenses to be formed.
ww2dbaseAllied General Bernard Montgomery realized that Rommel, largely inactive for the past day, was at least remaining defensive if not withdrawing. At 2230 hours on 3 Sep, he launched New Zealand 5th and 132nd Brigade to attack southward in an action dubbed Operation Beresford. While the attack was successful in cutting the Axis supply line and causing heavy casualties among Italian units, the inexperienced New Zealand 132nd Brigade also suffered heavy losses at the hands of the German 90th Light Division. In the morning of 4 Sep, New Zealand troops fought off a vigorous Axis counterattack, but another attack by troops of the Italian X Corps after dark caused heavy casualties, including Brigadier Clifton, the commanding officer of the New Zealand 6th Brigade, who was killed in action. Montgomery accepted his field commanders' recommendation that further attacks was not possible, and withdrew in the darkness. With the Allied counter offensive halted, Axis forces was able to withdraw successfully, harassed only from the air; they reached their lines on 5 Sep.
ww2dbaseBy the end of the Battle of Alam el Halfa, the Allies suffered 1,750 casualties, while the Axis suffered 2,930. In terms of tanks, the Allies lost 68 and the Axis 49. Allied air superiority was best demonstrated by the loss of about 400 trucks by the Axis, as Allied aircraft were able to reach behind German lines somewhat uncontested to attack the supply lines. There were much criticism against Montgomery for his failure to take this opportunity to achieve a decisive victory, instead allowing the Axis forces to retreat; Montgomery argued that many of his units had only recently arrived and still needed training, while he also wished to build up a stronger force so that when he struck he would be able to easily overwhelm Rommel.
ww2dbaseThe failed Alam el Halfa offensive would represent Rommel's last on his drive into Egypt.
Last Major Update: Jan 2011
Battle of Alam el Halfa Timeline
|30 Aug 1942||Axis forces launched a new offensive toward El Alamein, Egypt, immediately meeting resistance from the air by the Desert Air Force. On the other side of the lines, British leaders already knew of the general German direction, learned from successful "Ultra" cryptanalysis.|
|31 Aug 1942||German and British tanks engaged in combat near Alam el Halfa, Egypt, reaching no conclusion by nightfall as the British refused to fight in open terrain as the Germans wanted. German tanks broke off the attack at sundown after losing 22 tanks; the British lost 21 tanks in the day's battle.|
|1 Sep 1942||Before dawn, British Wellington bombers attacked German supply lines between Benghazi and Tobruk, Libya. The negative impact of such attacks was felt during the day, as only some of the Axis tanks was able to attack Allied lines at Alam el Halfa, Egypt due to inadequate fuel.|
|2 Sep 1942||Armored cars of 4/8th Hussars of British 4th Armoured Brigade penetrated Axis lines near Alam el Halfa, Egypt, destroying 57 German supply trucks near Himeimat. Erwin Rommel decided that he would withdraw since he could not gain initiative in battle.|
|3 Sep 1942||Allied forces counterattacked in Egypt partially successfully, suffering heavy casualties in the process. Bernard Montgomery decided to call off the counterattack at 2230 hours, thus allowing Axis forces to withdraw. During the night, a group of British Valentine tanks became lost in a minefield; 12 of them were destroyed by mines while trying to get out.|
|4 Sep 1942||New Zealand 5th Brigade and British 132nd Brigade harrassed retreating German troops in Egypt.|
|5 Sep 1942||Axis troops returned to the positions west of El Alamein, Egypt from which they began the failed offensive on 30 Aug.|
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Thomas Dodd, late 1945