The Campaign for North Africa The Battle of El Ala Essay

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The Campaign for North Africa The Battle of El Alamein




The Campaign for North Africa: The Battle of El Alamein

"Strategically and psychologically, El Alamein ranks as a decisive battle of World War II.
It initiated the Axis decline. The victory saved the Suez Canal, was a curtain-raiser for
the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa 4 days later, and was a prelude to the debacle
of Stalingrad. Allied morale soared, particularly in the British Empire, proud to have at
long last a victorious army and general; Axis morale correspondingly dipped. Hitler’s
order that Rommel should stand fast (rescinded 48 hours later, after the “Desert Fox” had
already started to withdraw) contributed to the ruin of Rommel’s army."


El Alamein appears to be nothing but an inconsequential village; an insignificant waypoint
across the barren desert landscape of North Africa. Yet, the seemingly irrelevant piece of
land would come to witness the single greatest battle of the North African campaign—a
battle that ranks among the greatest of World War II.

The time is 1942- the past two years have seen the advance of Axis powers across North
Africa. Allied forces suffered loss after loss as the Germans and Italians pushed easterly
towards the jewel of North Africa: Egypt. Egypt marked the gateway to the rich oil
resources of the Middle East—if Field Marshall Rommel, Commander of Panzerarmee Afrika,
could destroy the Allied forces, Egypt would be in Hitler’s hands. The oil resources of
the Middle East were of particular importance to Hitler, whose supplies were dwindling.
They were so desperate for oil that as well as influencing their tactical decisions, “the
Germans were having to eke out their stockpile by producing fuel synthetically from coal.
If the Nazi’s could seize control of the great oil reservoirs of Iraq and Iran, the
balance could shift overnight.”

Oil was not the only prize for an Axis victory, however. Conquering Egypt would separate
Britain’s direct sea line to India. Because the Suez Canal was so strategically important,
“Japan, victorious in southeast Asia, could conceivably join forces with a German army in
control of the Middle East. Indeed, victory here and now might well decide the whole war.”
The consequences of a German-Japanese controlled Middle East were ominous: Axis forces
could conceivably outflank the Russians and heartily defeat them.

El Alamein is located 50 miles west of Alexandria, on the coastal railway of Mersa Matruh.
El Alamein marks the northern boundary of the 40-mile wide corridor through the Western
Desert to Cairo. The southern boundary of the corridor is Qarat al Himeimat. South of
Qarat al Himeimat lays the Qattara Depression, a salt marsh 400 feet below sea level that
stretches southwesterly towards Siwa for 200 miles. Stretching south and west from Siwa
is the Great Sand Sea, filled with dunes that make it virtually impassible. The areas
unusual topography made for a bottleneck effect: most experts thought El Alamein to be the
last defendable place in the Western Desert. Indeed, west of Alamein, the desert opens up
and is highly trafficable.

The weather of the Western Desert is what one would expect: daytime temperatures are
extremely high (near 120 degrees Fahrenheit), but nighttime temperatures are as low as
fifty degrees. The intense heat of the afternoon causes mirages and therefore, makes
reconnaissance inaccurate or impossible. Sandstorms are common, usually springing up about
an hour before sundown. The lack of significant landmarks, combined with the absence of
light, made navigation extremely difficult and was known to cause disorientation and fear.
It is relevant to note here, that the soldiers who participated in the North African
campaign were rationed 1 gallon of water a day. This water was to be used for cooking,
cleaning, vehicles, and what was left was for drinking.

Supply played an essential role in the battle. The Axis powers’ supply route went from
Sicily or Italy to the main base in Tripoli with little resistance from the Royal Navy.
The Axis forces, however, were at a disadvantage as they moved westerly across the desert:
El Alamein was 1,400 miles from their main base. The length of the supply route began to
cause logistical problems and influenced Rommel’s tactical decisions. For instance, Rommel
knew that until he had sufficient gasoline and supply caches, he would have to remain on
the defensive, which entailed that he not use the sweeping flanking manuevers which had
made him successful. On October 23, 1942, the Axis had available 104,000 soldiers, 489
tanks, 1219 guns, and 198 planes. This equaled eight infantry and four armored divisions.
Fuel, ammunition, and other supplies were extremely short. Additionally, the Axis powers
lacked any forces capable of intervening. Hitler was concurrently deeply committed in
Russia and would not commit additional forces in Egypt.

The Allied supplied route, however was much longer. Supplies were shipped from the British
Isles through the southern route: the ships passed the Cape of Good Hope and came back
through the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Once supplies were in Egypt,
however, it was but a quick jaunt to Alamein. At the onset of the battle, the Allies had
three Army Corps: seven infantry and three armored divisions with seven additional armored
brigades. This equaled roughly 220,000 men, 1350 tanks, 2311 guns and more than 1,000
planes. Fuel and ammunition were plentiful. It is obvious that the Allies had the
numerical advantage.

In addition to the numerical advantage that the Allies possessed, they also had better
equipment. The American Grant and Sherman tanks were vastly superior to the older German
Panzers, although they had a high profile unsuitable for desert warfare. The Germans had
obtained a few of the new Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks, but they were rendered
inconsequential by the numerical disparities.

General Montgomery was the Commander of the British Commonwealth’s eighth Army, under
General Alexander, Commander-in-Chief, Middle East. General Montgomery had replaced Claude
Auchinleck at the behest of Winston Churchill who believed that Auchinleck’s performance
had been unacceptable. Also under the auspices of the 8th Army were New Zealand,
Australian, Indian, and South African divisions.

Field Marshall Rommel, Commander of Panzerarmee Afrika, had become ill immediately before
the battle, and had flown back to Germany for medical treatment. General Hans Stumme, who
had temporarily replaced Rommel, was therefore in charge at the onset of the battle.

The Battle of El Alamein was carefully planned by General Montgomery, who, after the
Battle of Alam Halfa, refused to launch a counter-attack until the eighth Army was
stabilized. Montgomery, therefore, was forced to postpone the battle until after September
1942. Montgomery also required that the operation must occur in conjunction with a full
moon, “in order to give light for night operations in penetrating German defenses.” The
next full moon was to occur on October 24, so Montgomery planned Operation Lightfoot for
23 October, in order to have as many moonlit nights as possible. The Operation would also
coincide with General Eisenhower’s assault of French North Africa, code-named “Torch.”
During the preparations for the battle, the Royal Air Force established complete air
superiority and subjected Axis forces to intensifying punishment.

General Montgomery planned the battle in three stages: the break in, the dogfight, and the
break out. Montgomery planned to use diversionary tactics to indicate that he would attack
in the South, drawing forces away from the strongly held North, then massing Allied forces
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