Throughout 1941 and 1942, the North African campaign had been characterised by opposing armies manoeuvring across vast swathes of territory, each trying to outwit the other, more like a naval campaign than a land battle, the aim being to seek out and destroy the enemy rather than to hold territory.
In such combat, Rommel excelled through his own tactical brilliance and determined leadership, but he was also sustained by the training of German soldiers in “mission command” in which all grades of officer were given detailed explanations of their missions and then left free to accomplish them as they best saw fit, a policy which encouraged initiative and a quick response to unforeseen opportunities as they arose.
This was in stark contrast to the British method of command in which the battlefield was deemed too chaotic and stressful for anything but total control from above, a policy which allowed action to stall as lower ranking officers waited for orders from their superiors.
El Alamein, however, was to shift the rules of engagement to Britain’s advantage, bringing them under Montgomery’s autocratic control and meticulous planning. Rommel had been lured into a funnel of land between the Mediterranean and the Qattara Depression, the latter a vast sunken salt pan impassable to wheeled vehicles. The British and Commonwealth forces had dug in at the narrowest section, only 65 km from north to south, a last ditch position with Alexandria and Cairo just behind them – and Montgomery had scrapped all plans to withdraw. Rommel was being forced into a static battle, more like trench-warfare than Blitzkrieg.
Rommel’s lines of communication had also been stretched and he needed time to build up his weapons, fuel and supplies before lunging for the Nile. He was therefore obliged to forestall any pre-emptive attack by constructing a formidable defensive mine field, the Devil’s Garden, stretching the full length of the line and several km deep, studded with machine gun posts and field guns, behind which his infantry defences began in depth with 50 mm guns, and lurking behind them his armoured divisions supported by a line of the fearsome 88 mm guns.
Montgomery opened the battle on the night of the 23rd Oct with a full frontal assault along the whole length of the line, commencing with a massive artillery barrage followed by an infantry advance through the mine fields while sappers cleared two corridors in the northern sector to allow two tank divisions to pass through. Most of the mines were anti-tank mines across which the infantry could walk with impunity unless they had the dire misfortune to tred on one of the scattered anti-personel mines or booby traps. For this reason, the attack had been code-named OPERATION LIGHTFOOT.
The idea was to engage the Axis troops in an infantry battle while the British tanks passed through the corridors to form a protective shield in front of the infantry, engaging with the Axis armour on “ground of their own choosing”. In the past, they had so often charged into battle against the Panzers and been lured onto the lethal 88-mm anti-tank guns. Montgomery wanted to avoid this and concentrate on destroying the infantry while holding ground with his armoured forces.
The main thrust was to be in the north where the British established a salient across the mine fields with four divisions, the Australian, Highland, New Zealand and South African, but pressure was kept up along the whole line so that the enemy was forced to keep its own forces dispersed with the 15th Panzer and Littorio armoured divisions in the north and the 21st Panzer and Ariete armoured divisions in the south.
By the morning of the 24th, the infantry were within reach of all their objectives, but delays in clearing the mine-fields, congestion and chaos in the narrow corridors and some devestating enemy gun fire prevented the tanks from getting through. As day broke, the tanks retired while the infantry dug in and the Desert Air Force (DAF) pounded the enemy positions. The Axis still had little idea where the main attack was directed and held back from any counter-attack.
Rommel was not with them. He had returned to Europe on the 23rd September to recuperate from exhaustion and debilitating stomach ailments and had passed command to General Georg Stumme, a Russian front veteran. On the morning of the 24th, Stumme was driven to the front to get a clearer understanding of what was happening, but his car was hit by gunfire and he was thrown out and suffered a fatal heart attack. Command of all the Axis forces passed to von Thoma who had been in charge of the German Africa Korps. As a tank-man, he knew his forces were short of fuel and refused to move them till he was sure where they could best be deployed. Like Montgomery, he was relying on his infantry.
During the night of the 24th, the infantry in the northern salient moved closer to their final objectives, a line just beyond the minefields. The corridors were cleared, but every time the tanks tried to emerge, they got blasted by Axis gun fire and failed to form the defensive curtain that was intended.
By the morning of the 25th, it was clear that the tanks were not going to get through. Only a few had managed it in the Highland sector while all had withdrawn behind the Mitereiya ridge in the New Zealand sector. Montgomery now focussed on infantry action in the north.
That night Rommel returned to his troops and drove up to the front line.
During the night of the 25th, the Australians extended their line north by taking the strategic high ground of Trig 29 while the Highlanders edged west, capturing two enemy outposts that protected the Kidney Ridge feature where German forces were concentrating. By the morning of the 26th, the Australians and Highlanders were poised for further attacks north and west.
Rommel was now sure the main attack was in the north and ordered up the 21st Panzer Division and part of the Ariete Division from the south to a position just south of Tel el Aqqaqir ready to counter any attack around Kidney Ridge while the 15th Panzer and the 90th Light were ordered to ready themselves for attacks on the Australian positions.
On the night of the 26th, the Australians held on against repeated Axis attacks while a British attack was launched on the Kidney Ridge feature. Under a creeping barrage, two battalions of the 7th Motor Brigade sought out strategic positions north and south of the ridge, Woodcock and Snipe respectively. In one of the outstanding actions of the battle, the 2nd battalion of the Rifle Brigade with 19 6-pounder guns moved unsuspectingly beyond their designated objective at Snipe and took up a strong defensive position just in front of where the 21st Panzer and Ariete Divisions were assembling and proceeded to blast the Axis armour throughout the night.
When day came on the 27th, the British mounted their first major tank assault with the 2nd and 24th armoured brigades sweeping round Kidney Ridge and provoking a counter attack from the Axis army. At the same time the Rifle Brigade continued its shelling and held off all attempts to dislodge them. By evening, however, the breakthrough hadn’t occurred and the tanks withdrew, followed by the Rifle Brigade. During 16 hours of continuous combat they had destroyed 51 German and Italian tanks.
During the night of the 27th, battalions of the Australian Division, exhausted by the original attack and following attrition on Trig 29 were relieved by fresher battalions from the same division in preparation for a thrust north the following night; while during the day of the 28th, all the tanks of the two divisions of the X Armoured Corps were withdrawn along with the 7th Armoured Brigade for maintenance and rest in anticipation of the final assault. The infantry now had only the tanks that had been assigned to them as support tanks, mostly Valentines.
Churchill feared there was stalemate but Montgomery was redeploying his forces and preparing for the final breakthrough.
On the night of the 28th, the Australians moved north with the intention of taking control of the strategic rail track and road while trapping the Axis divisions east of their salient. In support, they had Valentine tanks of the 46th RTR. Unfortunately, German defences were waiting for them and the tanks had difficulty getting through. Chaos raged and communications were lost between infantry and armour. The tanks withdrew by the morning and the infantry dug in just 1000 yards beyond their starting off point.
Rommel was now expecting the final attack to come in the north near the coast and repeatedly attacked the Australian positions throughout the 29th and the 30th.
Montgomery, however, had decided to breakthrough at a point a little further south, within the Highland sector, between the German and Italian divisions, but needed to keep the pressure up in the Australian sector.
On the night of the 30th, therefore, the Australians launched another attempt to take the rail-track and road. This time they managed to advance across the rail-track to Barrel Hill on the northern side of the road. But casualties were high and a blockhouse on the track which had been used as a medical centre by the Germans was now doing service for wounded from both sides with German and Australian doctors administering together.
The Australian position between the rail-track and road, dubbed “the saucer” by the Australians, was desperately exposed and could be viewed from the Sidi Abdul Rahman mosque 8 km away from where artillery fire was directed into the middle of it.
Throughout the following day, the 31st, Rommel bombarded the position and attacked with joint Panzer and infantry forces. But this time, the infantry received unflinching support from the tanks of the 40th RTR which harried and bluffed the German attacks, though its Valentine tanks with their 2-pound guns and a range of 400 yards were easy pickings for the Panzers with their 50 mm guns and a range of 1200 yards. By the end of the attacks, 21 Valentines were out of action and 44 crew were dead for the destruction of 4 Panzers. Further support had also been supplied by a battery of Rhodesian gunners that had come up during the night with their 6-pound anti-tank guns.
Attacks continued into the following day, 1st November, but that night, in the Highland sector, the final assault was underway, OPERATION SUPERCHARGE, directed at the Axis strong point of Tel el Aqqaqir.
Like Operation Lightfoot, the assault had been prepared by a withering 6 hour aerial bombardment followed by an infantry advance through minefields under a protective artillery barrage. Once the infantry had achieved all their objectives, tanks of the 9th Armoured Brigade burst out of corridors cleared through the minefield, stunning the enemy until dawn rose and the tanks were silhouetted against the horizon, allowing the enemy to bring lethal artillery fire to bear on them. Unlike Operation Lightfoot, however, the tanks didn’t retreat but continued right up to the artillery line, shooting and ramming the gun positions, knocking out 35 of them but losing 75 tanks out of the original 94 and suffering 270 of their crews killed or wounded.
It was an act of extraordinary heroism and the German gun-line was cracking, but it wasn’t followed up with the necessary alacrity to shatter it. Tanks of the British 1st Division hesitated as they passed through the corridors, giving time for Rommel to respond.
At first he had little idea what was happening and was pursuing his attacks on the Australian divisions further north while extricating his own divisions trapped to their east. Communications with Tel el Aqqaqir had been cut by the DAF bombing and it was only in the morning that he realized that the major assault had commenced and with his usual speed despatched his 21st Panzer division south to meet it.
They arrived just as the British 1st Division attacked. A brutal tank battle ensued which continued throughout the day with both sides suffering horrendous destruction, but the British had far greater reserves than the Germans who were now down to about 50 Panzer and Italian tanks. By evening, the tanks withdrew. The line hadn’t been breached but Rommel started to organize his retreat. This involved moving his motorised infantry towards Fuka while using his Panzers as a rear-guard. The Italians in the south, alas, had no vehicles and would have to be abandoned.
Montgomery kept up the pressure throughout the night with infantry action north, west and south of his new line. During the following day, 3rd Nov, the 8th Armoured Brigade annihilated the Italian Ariete Armoured Division but there was still no breakthrough as the German artillery held its line. Rommel, meanwhile, had been paralysed by an order from the Fuhrer to stand and fight to the last man. He issued a new order to his troops to hold their ground while he tried to communicate his desperation to the OKW in Rome and Berlin.
The breakthrough came that night. The 4th Indian division, followed up by the 7th Armoured Division broke through the defences on a 4 mile front south of the original attack. Brigades from the Highland division followed up by the 1st Armoured Division took Tel el Aqqaqir and captured von Thoma, commander of the Afrikakorps. By the afternoon, Rommel had had the Fuhrer’s order rescinded and was now in retreat.
The battle was over and the chase had started.