The British position in Egypt was at its most perilous during the final days of June, 1942. On the 21st, Rommel had captured Tobruk and driven the British out of Libya. On the 28th, he had outflanked the British defences at Mersa Matrouh. On the 30th, he had arrived at the Alamein line, only 60 miles from Alexandria.
Sensing imminent victory, Mussolini flew into Libya to prepare for his triumphal entry into Cairo. Cairo went into a “flap” and the British fleet quit Alexandria.
Auchinlek, commander of the British and Commonwealth forces, had created the Alamein line as a last ditch position in the defence of Egypt. It was here that any invading forces were funnelled into the narrowest stretch of land between the sea and the impassable salt pans of the Qattara Depression. But the gap was still a good 40 miles wide and the British forces had been severely depleted in men and matériel. To deploy his forces as best he could, Auchinlek established four fortified positions, known as “boxes”, with mobile units between them.
El Alamein was a simple halt on a train line that ran along the edge of the coastal ridge. It was defended by a 15 mile perimeter of trenches, gun pits and barbed wire in a wide arc that took in the coast, the ridge and the railway line. It was held by the relatively fresh 1st South African Division with one brigade inside the box and two mobile brigades armed with field guns patrolling west and south of it. The divisional artillery was strong with 25 pounder guns, reinforced by the 4.5 and 5.5 inch medium guns of the corps artillery which could hit a target 15 miles away.
To the south, 12 miles away, rose the long low ridge of Ruweisat, imperceptible as you approached but giving a good view back to the coast when breasted. The ridge itself was rocky and not easy to dig into so a defensive position was hastily dug into the soft sand of the hollow of Deir el Shein at the western end of the ridge. This was manned by the 18th Indian Brigade which had just been transferred from Palestine and was ill-trained and poorly armed to receive an immediate assault.
Eight miles further south, the 2nd New Zealand Division was deployed around Bab el Qattara, known as the Kaponga box to the Kiwis. This was a natural defensive position dug in behind an escarpment which allowed the defender good views across the desert plain while remaining completely hidden from the enemy – a feature that was soon to give Rommel a surprise. One brigade held the box while the other two brigades were deployed as mobile units behind.
At the end of the line, 15 miles further south, the 9th Indian Brigade held the Naqb Abu Dweis box which overlooked the main pass down into the Qattara Depression. They were short of fuel and water and felt very remote indeed.
Rommel intended to sweep round the Alamein box as he had done at Mersa Matrouh, scatter the British forces and head straight for the Nile. He was surprised, however, by the presence of the Indians in the Deir el Shein who held him off in a long day of bitter fighting before finally submitting to superior German forces. Any hope the Germans might have had of continuing the advance then crumbled in the furious pummelling of the South African artillery, so intense that for the first time in the North African campaign some of the German troops bolted under fire. By the 4th July, the Axis assault had stalled and Rommel was having to reconsider his plans.
He turned to the area south of Ruweisat and on the 9th July launched a full scale assault to take the Kaponga Box, only to find that it had been abandoned the night before. For the first time in the North African Campaign, Rommel was being outwitted. As he considered his next move, Auchinlek landed a blow against the Italians in the north.
The ridge that runs along the north coast dips to the west of Alamein and then rises again for several miles until it drops into the salt marshes before the small town of Sidi Abd el Rahman. Three trig point mark this ridge on maps: Points 26, 23, 33. The German and Italian memorials now stand on points 26 and 33.
On the night of the 10th July, a brigade of the Australian 9th Division made a stealth attack with fixed bayonets on point 26 at the eastern end of the ridge to the complete surprise and horror of the Italians, while another brigade with tanks and artillery swept round between the ridge and the sea to launch an assault on the western end at point 33. Along with 1500 prisoners, the Australians captured the principal German Radio Intercept unit positioned on point 33. Rommel had just lost his most valuable intelligence source.
Over the railway line from point 33 lies a gentle rise, Tel el Eissa (Hill of Jesus), which the Australians captured the following day.
The shock was total and Rommel was forced to send his 21st Panzer division north in a counter-attack which attempted to cut off the Australian salient from the Alamein box but was once again checked by the intensity of the South African artillery fire. In compensation, Rommel turned to the Tel el Eissa and recaptured most of it.
With Rommel busy in the north, Auchinleck now launched another assault to the south on the western edge of the Ruweisat ridge which had been in German hands since the defeat of the Indians at Deir el Shein.
The attack was launched on the 14th July in a night attack by tough New Zealand brigades which advanced 6 miles through Italian defences to take the ridge. At first light, however, they found themselves exposed to enemy counter-attacks without the possibility of digging into the rocky crest. As British armoured brigades failed to come to their support, the 4th New Zealand was forced to capitulate while the other brigades withdrew. Auchinlek had lost the initiative.
A second attempt by the New Zealanders on the 21st July to take the ridge through the Deir el Mireir met a similar disaster with the armoured brigades again failing to provide support.
In a late attempt to redeem their reputation, an armoured brigade, the 23rd, charged the German positions with the loss of 86 of the 93 Valentine tanks. A bitter enmity now developed between the 2nd New Zealand Division and the British Armoured Corps.
The Australians were sent back into action on the 22nd to retake Tel el Eissa but were repelled. On the 27th, they tried to take the Mitereiya ridge, which would play a central role in the final battle of Alamein, but once more a failure of coordination between infantry and tanks resulted in the destruction and surrender of an Australian battalion and a brigade of the Durham Light Infantry.
The British had proved their artillery to be invincible and their infantry terrifyingly effective in night attacks but serious deficiencies had been exposed in coordinating action between the infantry and armoured divisions which were to bedevil later operations.
Both sides were now exhausted and neither could maintain the tempo of the earlier days. Both dug in for a month before they had the strength to test each other again. During the uneasy peace, Auchinlek was replaced by Alexander as Commander in Chief Middle East and Montgomery was made Commander of the Eighth Army.