Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.
September 10th, 2017 by Daniel Hebditch
The Second Battle of El Alamein was the decisive battle of the North African campaign fought between the Allied 8th Army and the Axis Panzerarmee Afrika over 23 October to 4 November 1942. Its significance was feted, a touch inaccurately, by Winston Churchill: ‘before Alamein we never had a victory, after it never a defeat.’[i] In the tumultuous year of 1942 and combined with the Battle of Stalingrad it proved to be the high water mark of German success in the Second World War. After their defeat at El Alamein the Germans and Italians were constantly on the retreat in North Africa until their eventual surrender in Tunisia.
Yet for all of its importance the battle is regarded as a notoriously attritional battle with General Montgomery unimaginatively converting his materiel superiority into victory.
This time the sheer weight of Montgomery’s pressure meant that the Axis lines just buckled under the relentless pressure; more and more British tanks were knocked out by German mines, bazookas, and the 88 mms, losing at a rate of four to one, but they still kept coming, and they could sustain their losses more easily. The Italian tanks were blown away, the lighter German tanks swiftly destroyed, the artillery barrage continued, the daytime air strikes intensified.[ii]
Yet does the battle deserve such a stolid reputation? Could the battle actually have some aspects which today would qualify as Manoeuvre Theory? To explore these questions, the battle will be examined against the Tenets of Manoeuvre, and the 8th Army’s plan and execution measured through the comments of the German commanders and histories.
Focus all actions on the Enemy Centre of Gravity
The term centre of gravity was not in use in the 8th Army in 1942, indeed Clausewitz was definitely out of fashion amongst the British[iii], but Montgomery clearly knew what part of the enemy he needed to defeat for victory. The appreciation drawn up by his chief of staff on 19 August 1942 is aimed at the deliberate destruction of the Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK) comprising the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions[iv]. The DAK[v] provided the German-Italian army with the bulk of its offensive combat power as well its capability to counter-attack, without it the remainder of the force was immobile and highly vulnerable in desert warfare.
8th Army aimed to dislocate the DAK by forcing it to fight on ‘ground of our own choosing’[vi]. They were to achieve this by launching night infantry attacks to penetrate the Axis defences of infantry, anti-tank guns and particularly mine fields, and then rapidly bring forward their own tanks and anti-tank guns to blunt the inevitable DAK counter-attacks. The plan was deliberately formulated not to launch the British armoured brigades into a clean breakthrough, but to gain enough manoeuvre room to fight a defensive battle supported by the infantry and artillery. The engagement area between flanks held by the Miteirya Ridge and the sea was also carefully selected to allow for the concentration of combat power. The Desert Air Force was tasked to launch interdiction attacks on the DAK as it moved into position.
The Allies ruthlessly targeted the DAK’s ability to operate as a combined arms team. Deception held the DAK’s divisions apart in the initial period of battle and early electronic warfare aircraft targeted the DAK’s normally robust communications systems. From a wider theatre perspective both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy were targeting Axis supply convoys and in the month leading up to the battle no fewer than three vital fuel tankers were sunk crossing the Mediterranean. The mobility that made the DAK such a potent force was being threatened at source and the lack of fuel was a key concern in the Axis Headquarters.
The Panzers themselves also became a critical vulnerability. Their supporting infantry and anti-tank guns were forced into holding the defensive line and their artillery was outmatched by the now massed guns of the 8th Army. With the arrival of more powerful American made tanks and large numbers of 6 Pounder Anti-Tank guns they no longer had overmatch on the British armoured regiments. Forced to repeatedly counter-attack into the 8th Army’s hasty defences they were denied their ability to manoeuvre in small combined arms teams and suffered heavy losses.
Tactical surprise was achieved with the conduct of a complex, innovative and heavily resourced deception plan – Operation BERTRAM. This used a wide range of methods and techniques to convince the Axis commanders the main threat was to be launched in the south of the line, rather than in the north as was actually the case. Operation BERTRAM was undoubtedly successful; German commanders were expecting an attack two weeks later than it was launched and Rommel himself was away on sick leave. The German commanders were anticipating three armoured divisions attacking in the south and so perceived the real attack as a feint, holding a vital Panzer Division in the south for three days.
The 8th Army identified its main effort and resourced it appropriately. XXX Corps was to make the main attack for the initial Operation QUICKSTEP and held the strongest infantry divisions in the 8th Army; the 2nd New Zealand, 9th Australian, 51st Highland and 1st South African making the main attack, with the 4th Indian holding their southern flank. To the rear, ready to conduct a forward passage of lines, was the armour of X Corps with two reinforced Armoured Divisions. Artillery was also massed to support this attack with a formal fire plan that had an intensity not seen in the desert war to this point.
In the south XIII Corps was to both hold the line and launch attacks to reinforce the deception that the main attack was to happen here. However the Corps was provided with a capability in line with its economy of effort role. Its two British infantry divisions were under strength and supported by French and Greek brigades of limited combat capability in the attack[vii] while the highly experienced 7th Armoured Division was in serious need of a long period of maintenance. The corps was able to fulfil its role and Montgomery took an appropriate risk in the light of the Axis’ logistical weakness to reinforce his main effort in the north.
After the initial stages of the battle Operation SUPERCHARGE was launched as another attempt to neutralise the remaining German and Italian armoured forces. Montgomery placed Lieutenant-General Freyberg, commander of the 2nd New Zealand Division in charge of the operation. He was resourced with two British infantry brigades and an armoured brigade to supplement his New Zealanders, while all the artillery of XXX Corps was to be in support of the attack. That a division commander was given the resources of a corps speaks to the high regard of Freyberg and trust in him to conduct such a key mission. Montgomery resourced his Main Effort and allocated a commander he knew could see it through.
The concept of recon pull was harder to achieve in a situation where a combined arms breach was required just to reach the enemy. However during Operation SUPERCHARGE attempts were made to infiltrate armoured car regiments through the flanks of the main attack. One was successful in finding a gap through Italian manned defences on the southern flank and saw the Royal Dragoons unleashed into the Axis rear echelon to launch repeated raids on supply lines. This route was subsequently used by an Indian infantry brigade and then the whole 7th Armoured Division to complete the rupture of the Axis defences.
The Allies were relentless in their application of tempo against the Axis force. While the major attacks were launched under QUICKSTEP and SUPERCHARGE numerous other attacks were launched to keep the Axis off balance and to draw in reserves. The repeated attacks towards the coast of the 9th Australian Division between the two set piece attacks is an excellent example of this, while numerous other attacks at the brigade level were also launched. The action of the 7th Motor Brigade at ‘SNIPE’ where a single British battalion reinforced with anti-tank guns knocked out around 50 German and Italian tanks[viii] is another example of tempo denying the Axis the time to reconstitute.
Combined Arms Teams
While the 8th Army lacked the highly effective combined arms integration of the DAK it was still able to utilise its own combined arms teams in particular for the conduct of breaching the Axis mine fields. Well drilled infantry launched their attacks at night through the anti-tank minefields supported by tightly coordinated artillery fire and were usually successful in achieving their objectives. Combined arms Mine Task Forces; comprising engineers and MPs under infantry command were responsible for creating the breaches the support forces and tanks needed to support and pass through the infantry. Artillery manned anti-tank batteries were also closely integrated into the fight to protect the infantry from counter-attacking Panzers.
The 8th Army’s orchestration of effects can be seen in the array of measures it took to isolate the battlefield and give its soldiers the greatest opportunity to defeat the Axis. Strategic SIGINT from the ULTRA program gave its commanders a significant advantage in their knowledge of the enemy’s actions. The interdiction of Axis supplies by naval, air and special operations forces dramatically limited the DAK’s freedom of manoeuvre. The deception of Operation BERTRAM had its own effect on the decision making of the German commanders and assisted in preventing the DAK from operating as a consolidated force. Lastly the Desert Air Force had gained almost total air superiority denying the Axis aerial reconnaissance as well as enabling battlefield interdiction and close air support.
There are aspects of the battle that are undoubtedly attritionalist. Montgomery was clear about his desire to ‘crumble’ the fixed Axis infantry divisions to draw in the DAK to their aid. However the aim of the manoeuvrist approach is to fight the enemy’s plan while undermining his ability and will to fight. The best way to examine this is to view the battle through the German, in particular Rommel’s, response to it.
Rommel was aware that having failed to breach the 8th Army’s defences in the First Battle of El Alamein and the Battle of Alam Halfa, the balance of forces in the theatre was swinging against him.
The conditions under which my gallant troops entered the battle were so disheartening that there was practically no hope of our coming out of it victorious.[ix]
In particular the lack of supplies; ammunition, food and fuel, was becoming critical thanks to allied interdiction of supply routes which was already shaping the tactical options open to the Panzerarmee.
In addition, the British had now gained complete air supremacy over the Mediterranean and, by bombing our ports and maintaining close air observation over our sea routes, supplemented by intense naval activity, were in a position virtually to paralyse our sea traffic. As a result, our stocks of supplies were so low that shortages of every kind were evident even at the beginning of the battle.[x]
The initial 8th Army attack, Operation SUPERCHARGE, disrupted the Axis command and control and undermined the morale of some of the infantry units.
Our communication network was soon smashed by this drum-fire, and reports from the front virtually ceased. Our outposts fought to the last round and then either surrendered or died.[xi]
Under the impact of the terrible British artillery fire … part of the Italian 62nd Infantry Regiment left their line and streamed back to the rear. Exposed to this tornado of fire in their partially completed defence positions, their nerve had failed.[xii]
The 8th Army’s attacks had their desired attacks of breaking into the static main defensive line and minefields and drawing in German counter attacks.
Attacks against our line were preceded by extremely heavy artillery barrages lasting for several hours. The attacking infantry then pushed forward behind a curtain of fire and artificial fog, clearing mines and removing obstacles. Where a difficult patch was struck they frequently switched the direction of their attack under cover of smoke. Once the infantry had cleared lanes in the minefields, heavy tanks moved forward, closely followed by infantry. Particular skill was shown in carrying out this manoeuvre at night and a great deal of hard training must have been done before the offensive.[xiii]
Counter attacks by 15th Armoured, which continued throughout the day, managed to stem further attacks and drive the enemy back into Box L, though losses were heavy: that evening 15th Armoured had only 31 serviceable tanks left.[xiv]
The decision to meet the counter-attacks on ‘ground of their own choosing’ paid dividends as the British armour was finally able to meet the Panzers on equal terms, combining with artillery and anti-tank guns destroying tanks, and drawing the reserves into the line. This disrupted both the Panzers and the Axis defensive plan.
At 15.00 hours our dive-bombers swooped down on the British lines. Every artillery and anti-aircraft gun which we had in the northern sector concentrated a violent fire on the point of the intended attack. Then the armour moved forward. A murderous British fire struck into our ranks and our attack was soon brought to a halt by an immensely powerful anti-tank defence, mainly from dug-in anti-tank guns and a large number of tanks. We suffered considerable losses and were obliged to withdraw.[xv]
That evening further strong detachments of the panzer divisions had to be committed in the front to close the gaps. Several of the 90th Light Division’s units also went into the line.[xvi]
In contact engagements the heavily gunned British tanks approached to a range of between 2,000 and 2,700 yards and then opened concentrated fire on our anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns and tanks, which were unable to penetrate the British armour at that range… The British artillery fire was directed by observers who accompanied the attack in tanks.[xvii]
The use of the Operation BERTRAM deception plan and the lack of fuel was able to functionally dislocate the DAK from operating as a cohesive whole and tackle the Panzer divisions piecemeal.
Our counter-attacks early in the battle could not be made with a concentration of strength, as British assembly areas in the southern sector gave us good cause to fear that if we drew off all the motorised forces they would attack there as well. And the shortage of petrol would never have allowed us to move the Ariete and 21st Panzer Division back there again. At that stage of the battle, therefore, it was too great a risk to draw off all our motorised forces from the southern front to the north.[xviii]
The constant pressure of 8th Army’s attacks and the wider strikes on his supply lines had significant effects on the morale of Rommel himself.
No one can conceive the extent of our anxiety during this period. That night I hardly slept and by 03.00 hours [29th October] was pacing up and down turning over in my mind the likely course of the battle, and the decisions I might have to take.[xix]
At about half-past eleven I received the shattering news that the tanker Louisiana which had been sent as a replacement for the Proserpina had been sunk by an aerial torpedo. Now we really were up against it.[xx]
Montgomery’s decision to trust Operation SUPERCHARGE to Lieutenant-General Freyberg was also successful. This came with a heavy cost to his armour, although the relative losses to the DAK were more significant. The final dislocation of DAK capability was being achieved.
It was now extremely difficult to obtain any clear picture of the situation, as all our communication lines had been shot to pieces and most of our wireless channels were being jammed by the enemy. Complete chaos existed at many points on the front.[xxi]
The 21st and 15th Panzer Divisions – those parts of them that were not already committed in the front – were now put in from the north and south respectively to pinch out the enemy wedge. Violent tank fighting followed. The British air force and artillery hammered away at our troops without let-up. Inside an hour at about midday seven formations, each of 18 bombers, unloaded their bombs on my troops. More and more of our 88mm guns, which were our only really effective weapons against the heavy British tanks, were going out of action. Although every air protection A.A. gun within reach had been brought up to the front we still had only 24 of these guns available for use that day. Soon, almost all our mobile forces were committed in the front. We had already squeezed every possible reinforcement out of the administrative units, yet our fighting strength was now only a third of what it had been at the start of the battle.[xxii]
Operation SUPERCHARGE set the preconditions for the final breakthrough, which although often downplayed in the British histories certainly had a major impact on the Axis force, in particular its key mobile forces.
Thus the picture in the early afternoon was as follows: on the right of the Afrika Korps, powerful enemy armoured forces had destroyed the XX Italian Motorised Corps, and thus burst a 12-mile hole in our front, through which strong bodies of tanks were moving to the west. As a result of this, our forces in the north were threatened with encirclement by enemy formations twenty times their superior in tanks. The 90th Light Division had defended their line magnificently against all British attacks, but the Afrika Korps line had been penetrated after a very gallant resistance by their troops. There were no reserves, as every available man and gun had had to be put into the line.
These breakthroughs …, decided the outcome at El Alamein. Montgomery had fulfilled his plan to debouch into the open: he could now, by turning north and north-west, take the entire German–Italian Panzerarmee in the rear and unhinge the Alamein position.[xxiii]
Rommel’s own freedom of action and mission command had also been undermined by an unrealistic order from Hitler to stand and fight to the last man. This had its own effect on the general.
This order demanded the impossible. Even the most devoted soldier can be killed by a bomb. In spite of our unvarnished situation reports, it was apparently still not realised at the Fuehrer’s H.Q. how matters really stood in Africa. Arms, petrol and aircraft could have helped us, but not orders. We were completely stunned, and for the first time during the African campaign I did not know what to do. A kind of apathy took hold of us as we issued orders for all existing positions to be held on instructions from the highest authority.[xxiv]
The 8th Army was able to decisively defeat the Panzerarmee at El Alamein and set the conditions for the final defeat of the Axis in Tunisia in 1943. Rommel, however, was grudging in his assessment of their performance.
They actually undertook no operations but relied simply and solely on the effect of their artillery and air force. Their command was as slow as ever in reacting.[xxv]
While his opinion retains its validity, the manoueverist approach is predicated on applying your strengths against the enemy’s weakness and ensuring that they are unable to use their strengths effectively. This Montgomery was able to do; pre-empting, dislocating and disrupting the DAK’s obvious strengths in mobile warfare by every method he had available. He was also able to reduce Rommel’s tactical choices and ability to make decisions to the point where he was unable in influence anything except the withdrawal.
The Second Battle of El Alamein was certainly an attritionalist battle and only became a mobile one in its very last stages. In analysing its conduct through the tenets of manoeuvre however, it may just also have been a manoeuvrist victory.
About the author
Major Daniel Hebditch is an engineer officer. He has masters degrees in Military History and Defence Studies.
[i] Martin Gilbert, Churchill, A Life, p.734
[ii] Paul Kennedy, Engineers of Victory, 399/986
[iii] Hew Strachan, Clausewitz’s On War A Biography, pg.17
[iv] Reproduced in Niall Barr, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein, p. 428-435
[v] The term Afrika Korps is often, and wrongly, used to denote the whole German force in North Africa. Correctly it referred only to the two Panzer Division occasionally joined by the motorised 90th Light Division.
[vi] Barr, p. 433
[vii] The Foreign Legion’s 13e DBLE of the 1st Free French Brigade being an exception to this generalisation. See Michael Carver, Out of Step, p.140. Carver was the chief of staff (GSO1) of the 7th Armoured Division at 27 years old, he would command an armoured regiment at 28 and the 4th Armoured Brigade the next year. Post-War he would eventually reach the rank of Field Marshal
[viii] Barr, pg 456
[ix] Basil Liddell-Hart, The Rommel Papers, pg.302
[x] ibid, pg.302
[xi] ibid, pg.302
[xii] ibid, pg.303
[xiii] ibid, pg.308
[xiv] Horst Boog, Werner Rahn, Reinhard Stumpf & Bernd Wegner, Germany and the Second World War Vol VI The Global War, pg.779
[xv] Basil Liddell-Hart, The Rommel Papers, pg.310
[xvi] ibid, pg.310
[xvii] ibid, pg.308
[xviii] ibid, pg.334
[xix] ibid, pg.312
[xx] ibid, pg.313
[xxi] ibid, pg.318
[xxii] ibid, pg.318
[xxiii] Horst Boog, Werner Rahn, Reinhard Stumpf & Bernd Wegner, Germany and the Second World War Vol VI The Global War, pg.786
[xxiv] Basil Liddell-Hart, The Rommel Papers, pg.321
[xxv] ibid, pg.329