The Battle of El Alamein (July 1, 1942)
The Battle of El Alamein actually took place in two phases. The first phase, known as the First Battle of El Alamein began on July 1, 1942. Edwin Rommel, the commander of the Axis forces in the desert wanted to take advantage of his success against the Allies in the Battle of Gazala (May 26 – June 21) and reach the Suez Canal. After the fall of Tobruk, a port in Cyrenaica (today's eastern part of Libya), he was only 66 miles from Alexandria in Egypt and the Alamein Line was de facto the last line of Allied defense of the Suez Canal. Rommel launched several attacks between July 1 and July 27, however, he was repulsed by the British Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East, General Claude Auchinleck.
Although Auchinleck managed to repulse Rommel's attack, the Allied position was highly uncertain. The Axis hold virtually the entire Europe and pushed deep into the Soviet Union, while the United States were at the time still insisting on neutrality in the war. If the Suez Canal would fall into the German hands, it would de facto mean the Allied defeat in North Africa. In addition, it would cut off the Allies from a vital supply route as the alternative route to oil in the Middle East – around Africa would not only be too long but too dangerous as well considering that most of the world was by the time in the state of war. At the same time, the control of the Suez Canal would give the Germans an unlimited access to oil. The Allies simply could not afford to lose El Alamein and the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was well aware of it.
In the beginning of August 1942, Churchill decided to dismiss Auchinleck as the Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East. Auchinleck was replaced by General Sir Harold Alexander, while the commander of the XIII Corps William Gott was appointed the commander of the 8th Army. However, Gott was killed on the way to his new post. Thus Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was appointed as the commander of the 8th Army.
Upon arrival to his new post, Montgomery decided to leave over the initiative to Rommel. He knew that Rommel is highly likely to attack from the south as he had done it previously but thanks to the British Intelligence, he also knew that the "Desert Fox" as Rommel was called also desperately lacked supplies. The British Intelligence at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire deciphered both the Rommel's plan of the attack and difficulties with the lack of supply. Rommel, on the other hand, knew that the longer he postpones an attack the lesser the chances for success as the Allies were receiving all the necessary supplies through the Suez Canal. At the end of August, Rommel decided to take the chance and launched another attack on the Alamein Line.
Montgomery was prepared for the German attack. The German tanks suffered severe damage by the land mines that were placed at the expected route of the attack and became an easy target for the RAF. However, Rommel received a huge aid from the nature as a sandstorm provided his tanks with cover from the Allied fighters. But when the sandstorm passed, he was forced to retreat. Montgomery, on the other hand, did not follow his enemy as this would be expected but decided to wait at the defensive line for the arrival of 300 Sherman tanks which were superior to the German Panzers.
The Second Battle of El Alamein did not begin with Rommel's attack but with Montgomery's offensive. On October 23, the British commander decided to attack his adversary who was heavily outnumbered in both men and tanks. The "Desert Fox" had about 110,000 men and 500 tanks, while Montgomery's 8th Army consisted of about 200,000 men and more than 1000 tanks including the newly arrived Sherman's. In addition, Rommel was severely short of fuel. But to reach the Axis forces, the Allies first had to cross the so-called Devil's Garden, a 5 mile wide mine field which separated the two armies.
Before he ordered the attack, Montgomery launched a deception campaign to make Rommel think that he is planning to attack him from the south. The main attack, however, took place on the north. According to the plan, the infantry was to attack first because the anti-tank mines would not be triggered by the soldiers stepping onto them. After the infantry attack, the engineers would clear the mine field to make enough room for one tank. Although Montgomery planned to get through the Devil's Garden within a single night, the infantry did not get as far as expected, while a single non-moving tank would seriously jeopardize the entire operation. He tried one more time on October 24 but he failed to reach the objective for the second time. Montgomery was forced to call off the offensive. Although his decision infuriated Churchill, Montgomery did not give up the initiative in the Battle of El Alamein.
After failing to get through the Devil's Garden as planned, Montgomery decided to launch an attack at the Mediterranean. The attack was launched by the Australian units who suffered heavy casualties but they enabled Montgomery to launch the so-called Operation Supercharge, an attack on the German positions south of the Australian units. On November 2, Rommel realized that the battle is lost. Two days later he started to retreat, disobeying Hitler's order to fight to the last man.
With the victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein, Montgomery achieved a major turning point in the North African Campaign. The battle ended the German hopes to capture the Suez Canal but it also sealed the fate of the Afrika Korps. In May 1943, Rommel's forces in North Africa surrendered and the Suez Canal was secure. The Allies suffered about 13,500 casualties and lost about 500 tanks, while over 30,000 Germans were killed, wounded or captured during the Second Battle of El Alamein.