The July battles had finally brought a stop to Rommel’s advance and left him with his forces depleted and his supply lines overstretched. The port of Alexandria was only 100 miles away but beyond his grasp. Tripoli was behind him but further away than Berlin from Moscow. Benghazi and Tobruk were nearer but did not have the same capacity as Tripoli and their convoys were being pummelled by bombers from Malta. Rommel pressed the German High Command (OKH) for more men, fuel and hardware and waited impatiently for delivery.
The British and Commonwealth forces had stood their ground but were badly demoralised after a headlong flight from Libya and a continual failure to mount a successful counter-offensive. Nerves were so frayed that more men were being treated for battle shock than at any other time during the war. Desertion levels were so serious that the Commander-in-Chief, Auchinleck, sent a request to the War Office to reinstate the death penalty for desertion in the field and cowardice in the face of the enemy. Analysis of letters sent home showed that the men were “browned off” and “fed up”.
In the lull that followed the July battle, Churchill flew into North Africa to assess the situation for himself and was received by Auchinleck in his tactical command caravan near the front. Churchill wasn’t impressed. Auchinleck’s experience had been with the Indian army in campaigns along the North Western Frontier and he thrived in the dust and sweat of campaigning. Churchill was shocked by the Spartan conditions and the flies on his breakfast.
Though Auchinleck was a fine soldier, his choice of commanders for the 8th Army had been poor. The first was Cunningham who had fought a brilliant campaign against the Italians in Abyssinia but was overwhelmed by the scale of the North African campaign. He was replaced by Neil Ritchie who was roundly defeated in Libya and then outwitted during Rommel’s advance into Egypt. Auchinleck had been forced to take over personal command of the 8th Army while neglecting his duties as strategic Commander-in-Chief, Middle East. He had stopped Rommel but lost the confidence of Britain’s supreme war leader.
Churchill replaced Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief Middle East with Alexander, a Guardsman and son of an Earl with a reputation for suave diplomacy. As General Officer Commanding 8th Army, Churchill selected the charismatic Gott, who had commanded XIII corps during the recent battles. Although popular with his men, Gott was tired after two years of continual fighting and had shown little tactical flare in battle. He was never to take up his appointment. On a flight to Cairo, his plane was shot up and forced to make a crash landing in which Gott was killed. Churchill finally bowed to the advice of Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and appointed Montgomery. He was later to refer wryly to the hand of God in removing Gott and wrote to his wife that though Montgomery could be disagreeable to those around him, he could also be disagreeable to the Germans
Uncompromising and full of self-confidence, Montgomery had the personality to impose his authority and build up a mythic persona as strong as that of Rommel. Under Auchinleck, grousing amongst his divisional and corps had become habitual. Montgomery would have none of it and “Bellyachers” were told to take it or quit. He also needed to engage with the fighting soldiers and within days of taking command had adopted the Australian slouch hat covered in badges from the front line units he had visited. Impractical inside a tank, the hat was soon replaced by a tank-man’s beret. He was becoming “Monty” and even had the name painted in gothic letters on the side of his command vehicle.
Rommel knew that he had to attack soon before the British received the supply convoys that were on their way to Suez. Despite the logistical difficulties, his armour and ammunition were soon back up to the same strength as in May 1941 with the addition of two crack paratroop brigades, the Folgore and Ramcke, and some of the new Panzer mark IVs with their high velocity 75 mm guns. Only in fuel was he vulnerable and he would require deliveries in the course of the assault.
The northern sector of the front line had been the arena of the July battles and was now heavily defended. Rommel decided to strike in the south through the Munassib and Ragil Depressions to sweep round the ridge of Alam el Halfa, cut through the British supply lines and take Alexandria. It was a classic Rommel move and the British had anticipated it.
As Rommel assembled his forces on the night of 30th August, Albacores flew over to drop flares and light up the tanks, trucks and troop carriers as they clustered together to pass through the minefields, perfect pickings for the following Wellington bombers. From the high ground of Himeimat, the 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps witnessed the whole valley flickering with orange light and resounding to the drone of turboprops and crack of explosives.
The minefields were thicker than Rommel had expected and his forces were constantly harassed by artillery, mortar and machine gun fire of the 7th Motor Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, the Desert Rats, delaying their passage through and forcing them to burn up valuable fuel.
With daylight, the Axis forces could counter the aerial attacks with effective ack-ack fire, though a Wellington bomber scored a direct hit on the HQ of the Afrika Korps, wounding the Commander in Chief, Nehring and removing him from the battle. Twenty minutes later, the commander of the 21st Panzer Division, von Bismark, was killed by mortar fire from the Motor Brigade.
To conserve his fuel, Rommel decided to sweep north earlier than intended and headed towards Point 102 where the 22nd Armoured Brigade of the 10th Armoured Division awaited him in hull down position on the reverse slope of the ridge. During the advance, the 4th Light Armoured Brigade of the Desert Rats took over the harassment with their light crusader tanks until the afternoon when a dust storm obscured the advancing forces.
The storm abated in the late afternoon when 120 Panzers emerged from the dust to engage the prepared British positions. At first, the Panzers had the advantage with the Panzer IVs outranging the British tanks and causing the destruction of one whole squadron. But as they approached they fell into a trap when a screen of the new 6-pounder anti-tank guns opened fire at 300 m. As they veered to the right their flanks came under fire from the tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. As darkness fell, they withdrew and laagered in the Ragil Depression only to be bombed all night by the Desert Air Force.
Throughout the following day, 1st September, the attack was given to the 15th Panzers while the 21st Panzers was held in reserve to save fuel. Any advance north was held up by the action of the 22nd Brigade while movement east was resisted by the 8th Armoured Brigade and anti-tank guns of the 44th Infantry Division.
The following day, Rommel learnt that the convoys delivering the vital fuel had been sunk, beached or delayed. No further advance could be envisaged. He ordered a retreat in which the British mine-fields were to be incorporated into his own defensive position along with the heights of Himeimat which gave excellent observation positions. Over the next three days, the German forces withdrew in an orderly fighting retreat until they were behind the minefield and dispersed to limit the destruction from the nightly bombing.
Monty ordered his armour not to give chase. This was not the battle he was planning to fight.