The Battle of Alam Halfa

Rommel needed to attack. Every day he was getting weaker and the British were getting stronger. The ships and planes of Malta were wreaking havoc on his convoys and he was beginning to regret the decision not to invade the small island after his victory at Gazala (the supplies for Operation Herkules, the invasion of Malta, were pushed to him to continue his pursuit further into Egypt). A thousand miles from his ports in Libya, the very trucks delivering the fuel were using the bulk of it. Nevertheless, he had defeated a succession of Eighth Army commanders, Cunningham, Ritchie, and Auchinleck, and now it was the turn of the newest Eighth Army commander, LtGen Bernard Montgomery.

Monty wasn’t the first choice for the next Eighth Army commander. After Auchinleck fired Ritchie and took command himself, LtGen William Gott was chosen to succeed Ritchie. However, he was killed when his plane was shot down on his way to the front. Montgomery was the next choice.Montgomery might have been an arrogant martinet that was difficult to deal with, but he was a master planner, first class trainer of men, and he wasn’t afraid to sack an incompetent officer. Most importantly, he had an unshakable conviction in inevitable victory. Monty despised defeatism in all its forms, and this included even prudent measures in case Rommel broke through at El Alamein. As soon as he took tactical command of the Eighth Army from Auchinleck , the first thing he did was order worked ceased on defensive positions around Alexandria and Cairo. Rommel would be stopped at El Alamein, or they would die trying. In a popular story at the time, Monty said of his appointment, “After having an easy war, things have now got much more difficult.” A friend tried to encourage him, but Montgomery stopped him and said, “I was talking about Rommel”. 

The British defenses were strengthened along the coast road but gradually thinned the farther south Rommel went. There was an obvious gap far to the south where it was clear the British intended Rommel to attack. But he had no choice. If he couldn’t have the element of surprise as to the location, he would have it with the speed and tempo of his breakthrough. Rommel planned to be through the minefields before the British could react. This would allow him time to establish a hasty defense with his 88mm anti-tank guns and easily defeat the inevitable British counterattack. Once the British tanks were destroyed, he would breakout into their rear areas and then isolate and begin systematically destroying the British defensive boxes. Once that happened, the British would withdraw, as they always have. On 30 August 1942, Rommel struck, and he quickly broke through the minefield. He brought up his long range anti tanks guns and awaited the British armor.

But they never came.

Rommel continued his advance, confident that he would soon come upon British rear area units and supply depots. What he ran into was massed dug in armor and anti-guns on Alam Halfa Ridge, far behind the British main line of resistance.

In previous engagements in the Western Desert, Allied reconnaissance would identify Rommel’s panzers, and the British armoured brigades would charge forth in the grandest tradition of the Scots Greys and Household Cavalry of yore. And they would be massacred by Rommel’s 88s. The number of times in the past 18 months that a few panzers were used as bait for waiting 88s were almost too many to count. But cavalry “attacks”, that’s what it does. At least until Monty came along.

Much to the disgust of his armour and cavalry officers, Monty forbade them to attack, and ordered them to dig in on Alam Halfa Ridge and wait for the Germans. The defensive boxes along the frontier were in strong positions and could survive isolated for a few days. As the Afrika Korps and the Italian XX Corps through the south, they were extending their vulnerable supply lines to air and artillery attack. The battle proceeded just as Monty predicted.

The Germans and Italians saw themselves for the first time on the receiving end of long range anti-tank fire, and as they got closer to Alam Halfa Ridge, massed tank fire in a well-rehearsed engagement area. Furthermore, the Eighth Army was the beneficiary of Roosevelt’s pledge to reinforce Egypt after the fall of Tobruk, so the British sported more American tanks in the form of Honeys (Stuarts) and the newer Grant tank with its hull mounted 75mm gun and turret mounted 37mm guns (known as the Lee in America. The only real difference was the shape of the turret). German and Italian infantry assaulted the Commonwealth positions in order to expand the gap and take pressure off the fight at Alam Halfa, but although there was some hard fighting, they were unsuccessful.

Rommel was saved from being cut off and destroyed by an unfortunate turn of events. After Rommel was decisively engaged on Alam Halfa Ridge, Montgomery gave orders to limit tank losses so as to not jeopardize the upcoming decisive counteroffensive. However, the 4/8 Hussars (the combined 4th Queen’s Own and 8th Royal Irish Hussars) saw an opportunity to raid Rommel’s supply lines and did so to great effect: they shot up and destroyed almost 57 trucks and lorries. This unfortunately forced Rommel to send the Italian XX Corps back to secure his extended line of logistics. This act and the lack of fuel eventually forced Rommel to withdraw completely the next day. However, it also saved him when Montgomery’s counterattack to cut him off on the east side of the frontier minefields ran into the Italians, who were thus in position to throw back the British and Kiwi attack. They did so handily.

By the evening of 4 September, 1942, Rommel was back in his start positions, prepared to defend. However, the Eighth Army didn’t attack. As Auchinleck had discovered the year before, the only way to assure Rommel’s defeat was to have an overwhelming preponderance in supplies. Otherwise, the offensive would fall just short, and then Rommel would be in position in Libya to mass supplies more easily. This is exactly what happened to Operation Crusader. It was better to keep a starving and thirsty Rommel in Egypt where his fuel and ammunition had to endure Malta’s, the RAF’s and the LRDG’s raids, not to mention his own trucks guzzling his tanks’ fuel, before it arrived at the front. All the while American lend-lease equipment poured in to Haifa and Alexandria, a short drive away.

Montgomery estimated he’d need another month.

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