Second Battle of El Alamein
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseAt 2140 hours local time on 23 Oct 1942, British Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot by ordering a 20-minute general bombardment of the Axis front lines. At 2200 hours, infantrymen and engineers of the British XXX Corps led the way through the minefield (thus the name "Lightfoot", as they were too light to detonate many of the anti-tank mines) with the support of field guns. The engineers were supposed to clear a 24-foot (7.3-meter) wide corridor through the 5-mile (8-kilometer) deep minefield, but progress was slow, and the narrowness of the corridor and the excessive dust caused much confusion.
ww2dbaseThe British engineers were using the Polish Mine Detector for the first time. They were new mine clearing devices designed by Polish engineer Lieutenant Jozef Kosacki; they were doubly effective when compared to previous mine detection Devices.
ww2dbaseMeanwhile, to the south near Jebel Kalakh, the British 7th Armoured Division, supported by a Free French brigade, launched a diversionary attack to the south, attempting to engage the German 21st Panzer Division and the Italian Ariete Division so that Axis tanks would not move north to counter the main attack through the minefield. Elsewhere, at the Ruweisat Ridge, another diversionary attack conducted by the Indian 4th Infantry Division also successfully drew Axis attention.
ww2dbaseWhen the sun rose on 24 Oct, British engineers continued to struggle with their mine clearing mission, but the feint attacks were successful enough so that they were only drawing local fire. Indeed, the German believed that the attack was being conducted on a broad front, thus all front line defensive units were ordered to remain in position. During this day, Axis General Georg Stumme suffered a heart attack during an inspection of the front lines and passed away unexpectedly; Generalleutnant Wilhelm von Thoma stepped in as the acting commanding officer quickly, successfully preventing most of the confusion that occurred in the transition. During that day, as British engineers continued to work the way through the minefield, the main British tank assault force waited at Oxalic. Fighting continued across the entire front, while Allied aircraft conducted numerous sorties at defensive positions. At dusk, German tanks of the 15th Panzer Division and Italian tanks of the Littorio Division mounted an attack eastward out of the Kidney depression with the sun on their backs, engaging the tanks of the British 1st Armoured Division. By the end of the day, the Allied forces were far behind the planned positions, but the operation seemed to be moving forward nevertheless. During the night, Allied aircraft dropped 122 tons of bombs on Axis airfields and known tank gathering points.
ww2dbaseEarly 25 Oct, Erwin Rommel departed from Germany where he had been recovering from illness for the past three weeks after hearing the news of the Allied offensive. En route, he stopped at Rome, Italy to speak with Italian generals, requesting more fuel and ammunition. He arrived at the front in the late afternoon, assuming overall command once again. Meanwhile, in the Allied field headquarters, Montgomery decided to alter the plans by adding a new attack by having the XXX Corps strike northward toward the coast. This new attack was launched after nightfall, shortly before midnight, with Australian 26th Brigade and 30 tanks of British 40th Royal Tank Regiment leading the way toward Point 29 southwest of Tel el Eisa; the point was taken with 240 prisoners,. During the night of 25 to 26 Oct, Allied aircraft dropped 115 tons of bombs on various Axis targets, 14 tons of which were on the Sidi Haneish airfield where many German Stuka dive bombers were based.
ww2dbaseBy the morning of 26 Oct, Rommel ordered Point 29 to be retaken, believing that this northward advance was the Allies' main assault. The attack was conducted by the German 15th Panzer Division, the German 164th Light Division, and units from the Italian XX Corps at 1500 hours. The attack was met by heavy artillery and aerial bombardment, which effectively stopped the offensive before it could get underway. Overnight, Rommel moved the German 21st Panzer Division and part of the Italian Ariete Division to the north to reinforce what he envisioned would be the main area of battle; the movement was slow as Allied aircraft continued to bomb Axis columns. During the same night, Montgomery made changes to his troops deployment as well, pulling troops from various locations from the broad front to create a new force that would be put on an offensive within the next two days.
ww2dbaseAt 2300 hours on 26 Oct, the 2nd Battalion of the British Rifle Brigade attacked a position southwest of the Kidney feature codenamed "Snipe"; meanwhile, the 2nd Battalion of the British King's Royal Rifle Corps attacked "Woodcock" to the northwest. While the two battalions engaged Axis forces, tanks of the British 2nd Armoured Brigade were to maneuver north of "Woodcock" area and tanks of the 24th Armoured Brigade south of the "Snipe" area. The "Woodcock" attack never materialized as the British troops got lost in the dark, but the "Snipe" attack was able to push forward as planned. At 0600 hours on 27 Oct, the British 2nd Armoured Brigade pushed around "Woodcock" but ran into resistance, slowing down its progress. To the south, the British 24th Armoured Brigade was able to overcome persistent attacks by Axis tanks of German 15th Panzer Division and Italian Littorio Division and linked up with the 2nd Battalion of the British Rifle Brigade at "Snipe". At 1600 hours, Rommel launched a counterattack at "Snipe" area; the British positions were overrun by sundown, but not before destroying 22 German and 10 Italian tanks.
ww2dbaseLate on 27 Oct, the British 133rd Lorried Infantry Brigade was sent to reinforce the positions near the Kidney features "Woodcock" and "Snipe". By 0130 hours on 28 Oct, the British 4th battalion Royal Sussex Regiment reached "Woodcock", but a failed counterattack launched by this unit at dawn endangered the position once again. Meanwhile, the British 133rd Lorried Infantry Division thought they had reached "Snipe" and dug in when they were in fact several kilometers short of their target area. Further north, the German 90th Light Division was brought in to continue the attack on Point 29; tanks of the 21st Panzer Division were now shifted at "Snipe", joining the tanks of the German 15th Panzer Division.
ww2dbaseDuring the night of 28 to 29 Oct, Montgomery ordered the troops in the "Woodcock" and "Snipe" areas to dig in for defense, while the Australian 20th Infantry Brigade, with tanks of the British 40th Royal Tank Regiment in support, was ordered to push northwest from Point 29. Upon their success, Australian 26th Infantry Brigade, supported by tanks of British 46th Royal Tank Regiment, was dispatched to advance to the northeast. The latter Australian brigade ran into trouble as the tanks and the infantry lost contact with each other, and the attack was soon halted as the German 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment and a battalion of the Italian 7th Bersaglieri Regiment arrived to reinforce the sector. This attack was called off after the Australians suffered 200 casualties. The Italian battalion, however, was decimated.
ww2dbaseBy 30 Oct, the British had 800 tanks in operation, while the Axis was down to 148 German and 187 Italian tanks. The Axis forces were now running low on fuel; Rommel reportedly told his commanders early on this date that "[i]t will be quite impossible for us to disengage from the enemy. There is no gasoline for such a maneuver. We have only one choice and that is to fight to the end at Alamein."
ww2dbaseAfter sun down on 30 Oct, Montgomery ordered the Australians to launch several small attacks near Point 29. These attacks were meant to be diversionary, as Montgomery was planning an offensive to the south, guessing that Rommel had already committed his reserves in the Point 29 area. On 31 Oct, German 21st Panzer Division launched four successive strikes against Australian troops northeast of Point 29, which caused heavy casualties on both sides. 1 Nov saw repeated heavy fighting in the Point 29 area, again causing heavy casualties on both sides, but the front lines did not change much. By the end of 1 Nov, the fuel situation was dire for the Axis forces. The news of several supply ships being sunk at the hands of Allied aircraft only affirmed Rommel's belief that the battle could not be won by this point. He began to devise a plan to withdraw to Fuka, about 50 miles, or 80 kilometers, to the west, but he would not activate the plan yet.
ww2dbaseAt 0105 hours on 2 Nov, Montgomery the major offensive he had been planning, Operation Supercharge, which aimed at capturing the Axis base at Tel el Aqqaqir 3 miles, or 4.8 kilometers, northwest of the Kidney feature. After a 7-hour aerial bombardment on Tel el Aqqaqir and Siki Abd el Rahman and a 4.5-hour artillery barrage on the Axis lines, New Zealand troops spearheaded the attack with success. At 0615 hours, 30 minutes behind schedule, 94 tanks of the British 9th Armoured Brigade charged at the German gun line, which was a risky maneuver given the concentration of German and Italian anti-tank guns, but Montgomery knew that, if these tanks could overrun the position, the attack would be nearly secure a final victory. 30 minutes later, although many British tanks were destroyed or disabled, they were able to destroy 35 guns. By the time the gun line was overrun, only 24 tanks remained in operable condition, but a great tactical victory had been won by the Allies.
ww2dbaseThroughout the morning, New Zealand and British troops slowly captured their objectives, while armored cars of the British Royal Dragoons regiment raided Axis communications lines in the rear to disrupt coordination between Axis units. At 1100 hours on 2 Nov, German and Italian tanks counterattacked in force, striking the British 1st Armoured Division and the remnants of the by now effectively wiped out British 9th Armoured Brigade. The counterattack resulted in failure, with about 100 Axis tanks lost. In the late afternoon, British 133rd Lorried Infantry Brigade and British 151st Infantry Brigade attacked "Snipe" and "Skinflint", which was about one mile west of "Snipe", overcoming units of the Italian Trieste Division that guarded the area.
ww2dbaseDuring the night of 2 Nov, while Montgomery regrouped his forces for renewed attacks on the following day, Rommel received reports that only 30-some tanks would be ready to fight by dawn. He decided that it was now time to activate his plan to withdraw to Fuka to the west. He sent Adolf Hitler a direct message:
ww2dbaseAs expected, Rommel received a reply from Hitler, at 1330 hours on 3 Nov, ordering him to hold his ground despite the desperate situation.
ww2dbaseRommel compromised. While ordering many units to withdraw westward during the night of 3 Nov, he ordered the German 90th Light Division, Italian X Corps, and Italian XXI Corps to dig in to counter the expected Allied attack. During the same night, Montgomery launched the attack, hitting the area 2 miles, or 3.2 kilometers, south of Tel el Aqqaqir. In the early hours of 4 Nov, Indian 5th Infantry Brigade joined the attack, while the British 154th Infantry Brigade struck Tel el Aqqaqir at 0615 hours. Poor communications and incorrect intelligence (which had that all Axis forces were withdrawing) dealt nasty surprises to the forward elements of the offensive, but by the end of the morning it was clear that the Axis forces could not hold their positions. Montgomery dispatched British 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions to wipe out remaining Axis defensive positions, while the British 9th Armoured Division and British 4th Light Armoured Brigades were sent westward to pursue Axis units that were attempting to reach Fuka. Although Axis morale was low, the Allied attempts to eliminate the withdrawing units were still difficult. German 21st Panzer Division was able to perform a rather successful fighting withdraw, giving up only 8 miles, or 13 kilometers, of territory to the British 1st Armoured Division; meanwhile, Italian Ariete Armoured Division held the British 7th Armoured Division in place for much of the day, albeit that by the end of the day the Italian division was effectively wiped out. Italian Littorio Division and Trieste Division were also eliminated on this day. The elite Italian Folgore parachute division was captured after the Italian airborne soldiers ran out of ammunition.
ww2dbaseIn the late morning of 4 Nov, Rommel had no more reserves and his rear guard units were slowly being eliminated. He telegraphed Hitler again, requesting permission to fall back to Fuka. While he awaited the response, Generalleutnant Wilhelm von Thoma became captured, while the remaining units of Italian Ariete and Trento Division reported their dire situation back to his headquarters. At 1730 hours, still without a response from Berlin, Rommel gave the order for a general retreat. By that time, there was no longer any way for Rommel to save the rear guard units that were becoming overrun or surrounded by Allied attacks. A large number of Axis troops, many of whom Italian troops who were less motorized, would be captured due to the result of the delayed order to withdraw.
ww2dbaseOn 5 Nov, British tanks penetrated deeper behind Axis lines in an attempt to cut off the Axis retreat. British 7th Armoured Division moved to intercept the coastal road at Sidi Haneish, while the British 1st Armoured Division moved through the desert to Bir Khalda, where it would swing north for Mersa Matruh. Both attacks were unsuccessful, with the former falling short of its objectives by the end of the day, and the latter running out of fuel before reaching Mersa Matruh.
ww2dbaseIn the morning of 6 Nov, British 7th Armoured Division clashed with the German 21st Panzer Division about 15 miles, or 24 kilometers, southwest of Sidi Haneish; many German tanks and guns were destroyed, but the Germans were able to escape to Mersa Matruh, avoiding encirclement.
ww2dbaseOn 7 Nov, the rain that began on the previous day made movements difficult for most Allied units pursuing the Axis forces except for the British 10th Armoured Division traveling along the coastal road. During the night of 7 to 8 Nov, Axis forces evacuated out of Mersa Matruh to the next defensive point, Sidi Barrani, which they held until the evening of 9 Nov. All Axis troops were pushed out of Egypt by the evening of 11 Nov. Montgomery held all infantry units steady, allowing only armored cars and artillery pieces to pursue into Libya as he wanted to make sure his supply infrastructure could be established before moving forward.
ww2dbaseAt the conclusion of the Second Battle of El Alamein, the Axis suffered 37,000 casualties, which was over 30% of Axis forces engaged, while the Allies suffered 13,500, which was smaller by number as well as smaller by percentage of total forces engaged. Axis forces on the Egyptian-Libyan border was by this time down to little over 5,000 men, 20 tanks, and 50 guns, which was remarkably weak, thus many had since criticized Montgomery for being far too conservative, noting that a immediate further push might had dealt a final blow on the Axis forces in the entire region. Nevertheless, the battle was a great victory for the Allies, and affirmed Montgomery as a capable commander who knew how to use his numerical advantage in a war of attrition against Rommel, who had a smaller force.
ww2dbaseUpon learning that a large Anglo-American force had landed in Morocco and Algeria on 8 Nov 1942 to his rear, Rommel decided to pull his entire strength in the Libyan-Egyptian border region all the way back to El Agheila, Libya, where it would once again fall back a large distance to Tunis, Tunisia.
ww2dbaseOn 13 Nov, the pursuing Allied forces captured Tobruk, capturing a significant quantity of Axis supplies and equipment, but the Allies failed to encircle the Axis forces, allowing them to escape nearly intact. On 15 Nov, Allied forces captured Derna; the nearby Martuba airfield very became the new forward base for conducting air operations. On 20 Nov, the Allies captured Benghazi, but found the port nearly unusable as Rommel had ordered the facilities destroyed to prevent Allied use. On 23 Nov, Axis forces evacuated Agedabia, falling back to Marsa Brega. In late Nov, Rommel received orders from his Italian and German superiors to hold a line at Marsa Brega, but Rommel objected, suggesting that his forces be allowed to fall back all the way to Tunis in Tunisia. Meanwhile, the Allied forces moved forward at a slower speed than it had during the recently completed Operation Supercharge as supply lines were being stretched, and because Montgomery wished to establish defenses to the rear of the front in case of an Axis counterattack.
ww2dbaseDuring the night of 11 to 12 Dec 1942, Montgomery launched his next major offensive toward Marsa Brega and El Agheila. During the day on 12 Dec, there were a number of minor engagements. During the night of 12 Dec, Axis forces fell back. On 13 Dec, Italian troops fought off an attack by British troops north of El Agheila as the main body of the Axis force continued to move west. The Axis evacuation from the Marsa Brega and El Agheila area was largely completed on 17 Dec. On 18 Dec, a short but fierce engagement took place at Nofilia, 160 kilometers west of El Agheila. Although Rommel wished to regroup his forces all the way back in Tunis, he gave in to his superiors who wished to give away less ground, compromising for setting up a new defensive line at Buerat, Libya, about 80 kilometers west of Sirte, Libya.
Second Battle of El Alamein Timeline
|23 Oct 1942||Operation Lightfoot was launched by the British in Egypt, attempting to penetrate the extensive Axis minefield with a major offensive.|
|24 Oct 1942||In Egypt outside of El Alamein, British aircraft dropped 122 tons of bombs on Axis airfields and tank concentrations as Allied troops continued to engage in heavy combat.|
|25 Oct 1942||British XXX Corps moved north, with Australian 26th Brigade at the spearhead, attacked Point 29 southwest of Tel el Eisa, Egypt. This was meant to draw Axis reserves to the area.|
|26 Oct 1942||In the morning, Rommel committed much of his reserves to the Point 29 region in Egypt. Meanwhile, noting that Rommel had taken the bait, Montgomery planned to pin down Axis troops around Point 29 while launching a new offensive to the southwest.|
|27 Oct 1942||Heavy fighting was observed at "Woodcock" and "Snipe" positions in Egypt.|
|30 Oct 1942||Axis forces at El Alamein, Egypt were now down to about 320 operational tanks with little fuel, while the Allies had about 800 tanks. After sun down, Montgomery launched a diversionary attack at the Point 29 region to pin down Axis forces before he was ready to launch his main offensive elsewhere.|
|31 Oct 1942||German 21st Panzer Division launched four successive strikes against Australian troops at Point 29 in Egypt, causing heavy casualties on both sides.|
|1 Nov 1942||Rommel began to devise a plan to withdraw his forces at El Alamein, Egypt westward to Fuka, but he would not activate the plan yet.|
|2 Nov 1942||Operation Supercharge was launched at El Alamein, Egypt, destroying many Axis tanks and guns. Axis tanks counterattacked at 1100 hours, which failed to stop the Allied advances. During the night, Rommel requested permission from Hitler to fall back, which was denied on the next day.|
|3 Nov 1942||After sun down, Allies launched renewed attacks at the weakened Axis defensive positions near El Alamein, Egypt.|
|4 Nov 1942||Axis forces slowly fell back to the west toward Fuka, Egypt, but the rear guard continued to cause heavy casualties against the pursuing Allied troops. Seeing victory was now impossible, Rommel disobeyed Hitler's orders and gave the orders for a general withdraw toward the Egyptian-Libyan border.|
|5 Nov 1942||British tanks attempted, in failure, to out-flank the retreating Axis forces in Egypt.|
|6 Nov 1942||"Ring out the bells", General Harold Alexander signalled Prime Minister Winston Churchill, "Prisoners estimated now 20,000, tanks 350, guns 400, MT several thousand. Our mobile forces are south of Mersa Matruh. Eighth Army is advancing." Churchill did not in fact ring the bells until nine days later, when he knew that the landings in North West Africa were also going well, but when he did it was to celebrate Bernard Montgomery's victory at El Alamein, Egypt, not the later landings.|
|7 Nov 1942||In the morning, British 7th Armoured Division clashed with the German 21st Panzer Division about 24 kilometers southwest of Sidi Haneish, Egypt. British tanks won the engagement, destroying many tanks and guns, but failed to prevent the Germans from withdrawing to Mersa Matruh.|
|8 Nov 1942||Axis defenses in Egypt fell back to Sidi Barrani.|
|9 Nov 1942||Allied troops captured Sidi Barrani, Egypt.|
|11 Nov 1942||Allied troops pushed all Axis troops out of Egypt.|
|13 Nov 1942||Allied troops captured Tobruk, Libya.|
|15 Nov 1942||Allied forces captured Derna, Libya, along with the nearby Martuba airfield, which immediately became the new forward base for conducting air operations.|
|20 Nov 1942||British troops entered the city of Benghazi, Libya, and found ports and facilities destroyed by Germans before their withdrawal.|
|23 Nov 1942||Axis forces evacuated Agedabia, Libya.|
|27 Nov 1942||Axis forces stiffened resistance on the approaches to Tunis, Tunisia.|
|11 Dec 1942||The Allies launched a new offensive toward Marsa Brega and El Agheila in Libya.|
|12 Dec 1942||Axis rear guards engaged the attacking Allied forces near Marsa Brega and El Agheila in Libya as the main Axis force evacuated to the west.|
|13 Dec 1942||Italian troops fought off an attack by British troops north of El Agheila, Libya in a rear guard action.|
|17 Dec 1942||Axis forces largely completed their evacuation from the Marsa Brega and El Agheila region in Libya.|
|18 Dec 1942||Axis and Allied forces engaged in brief but fierce combat at Nofilia, Libya.|
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Winston Churchill, 1935