For a week, the battle between Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Panzer Armee Afrika and Lt Gen Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army raged around an obscure railroad terminal in Egypt at El Alamein. In the previous weeks, both sides dug in and laid extensive minefields all the way from the coast to the impassable Qatarra Depression in the south. So far, the Second Battle of El Alamein was a constant cut, parry, and riposte by both sides, as the Eighth Army sought weak points in the German defenses, and slowly ground down Rommel’s forces. From Enigma intercepts, Montgomery knew of Rommel’s supply difficulties; it was only a matter of time before the Axis lines broke.
On 1 November 1942, Montgomery found his weak spot just above the Miteirya and Kidney Ridges in the north of the battlefield. There, dismounted engineers (the “light feet” of Operation Lightfoot, since they wouldn’t set off the anti-tank mines if they stepped on them) had cleared several passages through the German and Italian minefields. That evening, Montgomery reshuffled his forces and formed a composite division under the redoubtable Bernard Freyberg (Crete notwithstanding, Freyberg was still the best division commander the British had) and what remained of his 2nd New Zealand Division.
Just after 0100 that night, Freyberg launched Operation Supercharge to crack the German lines and pass the 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions through so they could engage and destroy the remainder of Rommel’s ever dwindling supply of panzers. After a furious four hour bombardment, the Kiwi and British infantry forced the ridges doggedly defended by dug in Italian infantry, but expended themselves doing so. The only remaining static Axis defense was an anti-tank screen along the Rahman track. Freyberg had no infantry left to clear it, but with the breakout so close, a good old fashioned cavalry charge, Light Brigade-style, had to be tried.
The job fell to Brigadier Currie’s 9th Armoured Brigade, initially attached to Freyberg to fix Rommel’s inevitable counterattack after the infantry pierced the line. Now they were attacking directly into the teeth of German anti-tank guns. Just after dawn with the sun at their backs the British tankers rolled forward desperately trying to close the distance before the dreaded 88s shot them to pieces. But attacks that were suicide earlier in the year were merely exceptionally dangerous now. Thanks to Roosevelt’s stripping of tanks from America’s first armored division and sending them to the Middle East after the Fall of Tobruk, the thin skinned and light gunned Honeys, Cruisers, and Crusaders had been replaced by heavier and newer Churchill, Grant, and Sherman tanks, with thicker armour and longer ranged guns. For 30 intense minutes, Currie’s tanks dueled with Rommel’s guns. He didn’t break through, but there were few anti guns remaining. Rommel reinforced the line. However, only a counter attack could prevent the Eighth Army, a formation that Auchinlek and Montgomery spent months painstakingly building up, from breaking through and cutting the all-important coast road.
About an hour later, a Kiwi brigadier was wondering why the 9th Arm Brigade wasn’t supporting the defense. He found Currie dozing on a stretcher. “Sorry to wake you, John, but where are your regiments?” Currie waved to the half dozen tanks laagered around him. “Not your headquarters, your regiments?” Channeling Picket at Gettysburg, Currie groggily replied, “These are my regiments, Bill.”
Fortunately for Currie, Freyberg, and Montgomery, Rommel had little fuel and few tanks left to effect a counterattack. That afternoon, he threw the Littorio Armored Division and the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions at the gap, where they were stopped cold by British and Kiwi anti-tank guns and artillery, supported by waves of RAF air support, who by this point in the battle had near complete control of the air. The Germans and Italians lost nearly 100 tanks in what became known as “The Hammering of the Panzers”. It was about the same number of losses as the British, but Rommel had no replacements. He had just 35 tanks remaining, little fuel, and there was a British armoured car squadron rampaging through his rear areas who had slipped through in the confusion. Rommel knew the battle was lost.
However, Rommel was determined to save as much of his command as possible. That night he radioed Hitler directly for permission to withdraw, which Hitler replied the next day that Rommel needed to stand his ground, and ended his message with, “you can show them no other road than that to victory or death.” Rommel decided to compromise, but waiting on Hitler’s reply cost him dearly. He planned on withdrawing six miles, but never had the chance. During the night Montgomery again reorganized his forces and launched three infantry brigades at what was left of Rommel’s defenses along the Rahman Track, and broke through. Only the determined and stalwart defense by several Italian units prevented the PanzerArmee’s complete destruction, as Rommel waited on Hitler’s response. The elite Folgore Parachute Division, which spent most of its existence preparing for an airborne assault on Malta, was encircled and destroyed. They literally fought until the last bullet was expended. The Afrika Korps’ longest serving Italian allies, the Ariete and Littorio Armored Divisions and the Trieste Motorized Division, were also destroyed in desperate rear guard actions to buy Rommel time for the rest to withdraw.
By the morning of the 4th, the situation was hopeless, and Rommel abandoned the line to fall back to Fuka, 50 miles west. But he couldn’t even stop there. Montgomery’s armoured divisions dogged him the entire way, and by the 11th, Rommel was thrown out of Egypt. Rommel deemed Cyrenacia untenable with what remained of his once feared PanzerArmee Afrika, and by 23 November was back at El Algheila, where he started nearly eleven months before. Despite Hitler’s order to stand and die, Rommel’s compromise to withdraw just six miles at the end of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein, turned into a retreat of over 650 miles. He would never return.
After the Second Battle of El Alamein, Churchill noted, “We can almost say that before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat”.