First Battle of El Alamein
Overview
 
The First Battle of El Alamein (1–27 July 1942) was a battle of the Western Desert Campaign
Western Desert Campaign
The Western Desert Campaign, also known as the Desert War, was the initial stage of the North African Campaign during the Second World War. The campaign was heavily influenced by the availability of supplies and transport. The ability of the Allied forces, operating from besieged Malta, to...

 of the Second World War
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, fought between Axis forces (Germany and Italy) of the Panzer Army Africa
Panzer Army Africa
As the number of German armed forces committed to the North Africa Campaign of World War II grew from the initial commitment of a small corps the Germans developed a more elaborate command structure and placed the now larger Afrika Korps, with Italian units under this new German command structure,...

 (Panzerarmee Afrika) commanded by Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) Erwin Rommel
Erwin Rommel
Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel , popularly known as the Desert Fox , was a German Field Marshal of World War II. He won the respect of both his own troops and the enemies he fought....

, and Allied
Allies of World War II
The Allies of World War II were the countries that opposed the Axis powers during the Second World War . Former Axis states contributing to the Allied victory are not considered Allied states...

 (specifically, British Imperial) forces (Britain, British India, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) of the British Eighth Army
Eighth Army (United Kingdom)
The Eighth Army was one of the best-known formations of the British Army during World War II, fighting in the North African and Italian campaigns....

 commanded by General
General (United Kingdom)
General is currently the highest peace-time rank in the British Army and Royal Marines. It is subordinate to the Army rank of Field Marshal, has a NATO-code of OF-9, and is a four-star rank....

 Claude Auchinleck
Claude Auchinleck
Field Marshal Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck, GCB, GCIE, CSI, DSO, OBE , nicknamed "The Auk", was a British army commander during World War II. He was a career soldier who spent much of his military career in India, where he developed a love of the country and a lasting affinity for the soldiers...

. The battle halted the second (and final) advance by the Axis forces into Egypt, El Alamein being only 66 mi (106.2 km) from Alexandria
Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

.
Following its defeat at the Battle of Gazala
Battle of Gazala
The Battle of Gazala was an important battle of the Second World War Western Desert Campaign, fought around the port of Tobruk in Libya from 26 May-21 June 1942...

 in June 1942, the British Eighth Army
Eighth Army (United Kingdom)
The Eighth Army was one of the best-known formations of the British Army during World War II, fighting in the North African and Italian campaigns....

 had retreated from the Gazala line to Mersa Matruh, roughly 100 mi (160.9 km) inside the Egyptian border.
Encyclopedia
The First Battle of El Alamein (1–27 July 1942) was a battle of the Western Desert Campaign
Western Desert Campaign
The Western Desert Campaign, also known as the Desert War, was the initial stage of the North African Campaign during the Second World War. The campaign was heavily influenced by the availability of supplies and transport. The ability of the Allied forces, operating from besieged Malta, to...

 of the Second World War
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, fought between Axis forces (Germany and Italy) of the Panzer Army Africa
Panzer Army Africa
As the number of German armed forces committed to the North Africa Campaign of World War II grew from the initial commitment of a small corps the Germans developed a more elaborate command structure and placed the now larger Afrika Korps, with Italian units under this new German command structure,...

 (Panzerarmee Afrika) commanded by Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) Erwin Rommel
Erwin Rommel
Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel , popularly known as the Desert Fox , was a German Field Marshal of World War II. He won the respect of both his own troops and the enemies he fought....

, and Allied
Allies of World War II
The Allies of World War II were the countries that opposed the Axis powers during the Second World War . Former Axis states contributing to the Allied victory are not considered Allied states...

 (specifically, British Imperial) forces (Britain, British India, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) of the British Eighth Army
Eighth Army (United Kingdom)
The Eighth Army was one of the best-known formations of the British Army during World War II, fighting in the North African and Italian campaigns....

 commanded by General
General (United Kingdom)
General is currently the highest peace-time rank in the British Army and Royal Marines. It is subordinate to the Army rank of Field Marshal, has a NATO-code of OF-9, and is a four-star rank....

 Claude Auchinleck
Claude Auchinleck
Field Marshal Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck, GCB, GCIE, CSI, DSO, OBE , nicknamed "The Auk", was a British army commander during World War II. He was a career soldier who spent much of his military career in India, where he developed a love of the country and a lasting affinity for the soldiers...

. The battle halted the second (and final) advance by the Axis forces into Egypt, El Alamein being only 66 mi (106.2 km) from Alexandria
Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

.

Retreat from Gazala

Following its defeat at the Battle of Gazala
Battle of Gazala
The Battle of Gazala was an important battle of the Second World War Western Desert Campaign, fought around the port of Tobruk in Libya from 26 May-21 June 1942...

 in June 1942, the British Eighth Army
Eighth Army (United Kingdom)
The Eighth Army was one of the best-known formations of the British Army during World War II, fighting in the North African and Italian campaigns....

 had retreated from the Gazala line to Mersa Matruh, roughly 100 mi (160.9 km) inside the Egyptian border. Lieutenant-General Neil Ritchie
Neil Ritchie
General Sir Neil Methuen Ritchie GBE, KCB, DSO, MC, KStJ was a senior British army officer during the Second World War.-Military career:...

 had decided not to hold the defences on the Egyptian border, because the defensive plan there relied on his infantry holding defended localities, while a strong armoured force was held back in reserve to foil any attempts to penetrate or outflank the fixed defenses. Since Ritchie had virtually no armoured units left fit to fight, the infantry positions would be defeated in detail. The Mersa defence plan also included an armoured reserve but in its absence Ritchie believed he could organise his infantry to cover the minefields between the defended localities to prevent Axis engineers from having undisturbed access.

To defend the Matruh line, Ritchie placed Indian 10th Infantry Division (in Matruh itself) and 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division (some 15 mi (24.1 km) down the coast at Gerawla) under X Corps
X Corps (United Kingdom)
The X Corps was a British Army formation in the First World War and was later reformed in 1942 during the North African campaign of the Second World War as part of the Eighth Army.- First World War :...

 HQ, newly arrived from Syria. Inland from X Corps would be XIII Corps
XIII Corps (United Kingdom)
XIII Corps was a British infantry corps during World War I and World War II.-World War I:XIII Corps was formed in France on 15 November 1915 under Lieutenant-General Walter Congreve to be part of Fourth Army. It was first seriously engaged during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. On the First day on...

 with Indian 5th Infantry Division (with only one infantry brigade, Indian 29th Infantry Brigade
29th Indian Infantry Brigade
The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was an Infantry formation of the Indian Army during World War II. It was formed in October 1940, by the renumbering of the 21st Indian Infantry Brigade. It was assigned to the 5th Indian Infantry Division...

, and two artillery regiments) around Sidi Hamza (about 20 mi (32.2 km) inland, the newly arrived New Zealand 2nd Division (short one brigade because of lack of transport) at Minqar Qaim (on the escarpment 30 mi (48.3 km) inland) and 1st Armoured Division in the open desert to the south. The 1st Armoured had taken over 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades from 7th Armoured Division which by this time had only three tank regiments between them.

On 25 June, General Claude Auchinleck
Claude Auchinleck
Field Marshal Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck, GCB, GCIE, CSI, DSO, OBE , nicknamed "The Auk", was a British army commander during World War II. He was a career soldier who spent much of his military career in India, where he developed a love of the country and a lasting affinity for the soldiers...

—Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) Middle East Command
Middle East Command
The Middle East Command was a British Army Command established prior to the Second World War in Egypt. Its primary role was to command British land forces and co-ordinate with the relevant naval and air commands to defend British interests in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean region.The...

—relieved Ritchie and assumed direct command of Eighth Army himself. He decided not to seek a decisive confrontation at the Mersa Matruh position: it had an open left flank to the south of the sort well exploited by Rommel at Gazala. He decided instead to employ delaying tactics while withdrawing a further 100 miles (160.9 km) or more east to near El Alamein
El Alamein
El Alamein is a town in the northern Matrouh Governorate of Egypt. Located on the Mediterranean Sea, it lies west of Alexandria and northwest of Cairo. As of 2007, it has a local population of 7,397 inhabitants.- Climate :...

 on the Mediterranean coast. Only 40 mi (64.4 km) to the south of El Alamein the steep slopes of the Qattara Depression
Qattara Depression
The Qattara Depression is a depression in the north west of Egypt in the Matruh Governorate and is part of the Libyan Desert. It lies below sea level and is covered with salt pans, sand dunes and salt marshes. The region extends between latitudes of 28°35' and 30°25' North and longitudes of 26°20'...

 ruled out the possibility of armour moving around the southern flank of his defences and limited the width of the front he had to defend.

Battle of Mersa Matruh

While preparing the Alamein positions, Auchinleck fought strong delaying actions, first at Mersa Matruh on 26–27 June and then Fuka on 28 June. The late change of orders resulted in some confusion in the forward formations (X Corps and XIII Corps) between the desire to inflict damage on the enemy and the intention not to get trapped in the Matruh position but retreat in good order. The result was poor coordination between the two forward Corps and units within them.

Late on 26 June, the 90th Light and 21st Panzer Divisions managed to find their way through the minefields in the centre of the front. Early on 27 June, resuming its advance, the 90th Light was checked by 50th Division's artillery. Meanwhile, the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions advanced east above and below the escarpment. The 15th Panzer were blocked by 4th Armoured and 7th Motor Brigades, but the 21st Panzer were ordered on to attack Minqar Qaim. Rommel ordered 90th Light to resume its advance, requiring it to cut the coast road behind 50th Division by the evening.

As the 21st Panzer moved on Minqar Qaim, the New Zealand 2nd Division found itself surrounded. It succeeded in breaking out on the night of 27 June without serious losses and withdraw east. Auchinleck had planned a second delaying position at Fuka, some 30 mi (48.3 km) east of Matruh, and at 21:20 he issued the orders for a withdrawal to Fuka. Confusion in communication led the division withdrawing immediately to the El Alamein position.

X Corps meanwhile, having made an unsuccessful attempt to secure a position on the escarpment, were out of touch with Eighth Army from 19:30 until 04:30 the next morning. Only then did they discover that the withdrawal order had been given. The withdrawal of XIII Corps had left the southern flank of X Corps on the coast at Matruh exposed and their line of retreat compromised by the cutting of the coastal road 17 mi (27.4 km) east of Matruh. They were ordered to break out southwards into the desert and then make their way east. Auchinleck ordered XIII Corps to provide support but they were in no position to do so. At 21:00 on 28 June, X Corps—organised into brigade groups—headed south. In the darkness, there was considerable confusion as they came across enemy units leaguered for the night. In the process, 5th Indian Division in particular sustained heavy casualties, including the destruction of the Indian 29th Infantry Brigade
29th Indian Infantry Brigade
The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was an Infantry formation of the Indian Army during World War II. It was formed in October 1940, by the renumbering of the 21st Indian Infantry Brigade. It was assigned to the 5th Indian Infantry Division...

 at Fuka. Axis forces captured more than 6,000 prisoners, in addition to 40 tanks and an enormous quantity of supplies.

Defences at El Alamein

Alamein itself was an insignificant railway station on the coast. Some 10 mi (16.1 km) to the south lay the Ruweisat Ridge
Ruweisat Ridge
Ruweisat Ridge is a geographical feature in the Western Egyptian desert, mid way between the Mediterranean Sea and the Qattara Depression. It was a prominent part of the defence line in the First and Second Battle of El Alamein. During the Second Battle of El Alamein, the 4th Indian Infantry...

, a low stony ridge that nonetheless gave excellent observation for many miles over the surrounding desert. 20 mi (32.2 km) to the south of that lay the Qattara Depression. The line the British chose to defend stretched between the sea and the Qattara Depression, which meant that Rommel could outflank it only by taking a significant detour to the south and crossing the Sahara Desert. The British Army in Egypt recognized this before the war and had the Eighth Army begin construction of several "boxes" (localities with dug-outs and surrounded by minefields and barbed wire), the most developed being around the railway station at Alamein. Most of the "line", however, was just open, empty desert. Lieutenant-General William Norrie (GOC XXX Corps) organized the position and started to construct three defended "boxes". The first and strongest, at El Alamein on the coast, had been partly wired and mined by 1st South African Division. The Bab el Qattara box—some 20 mi (32.2 km) from the coast and 8 mi (12.9 km) southwest of the Ruweisat Ridge—had been dug but had not been wired or mined, while at the Naq Abu Dweis box (on the edge of the Qattara Depression), 34 mi (54.7 km) from the coast, very little work had been done.

The British position in Egypt was in a critical state. The rout from Mersa Matruh had created a panic in the British headquarters at Cairo, something later called "the Flap". On what came to be referred to as "Ash Wednesday", at British headquarters, rear echelon units, and the British Embassy, the British frantically burned confidential papers in anticipation of the entry of Axis troops into the city. Auchinleck—although believing he could stop Rommel at Alamein—felt he could not ignore the possibility that he might once more be outmanoeuvered or outfought. He therefore believed that, in order to maintain his army, plans must be made for the possibility of a further retreat whilst maintaining morale and retaining the support and co-operation of the Egyptians. Defensive positions were constructed west of Alexandria and on the approaches to Cairo while considerable areas in the Nile delta were flooded.

The Axis, too, believed that the capture of Egypt was imminent; Italian leader Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini
Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was an Italian politician who led the National Fascist Party and is credited with being one of the key figures in the creation of Fascism....

—sensing an historic moment—flew to Libya to prepare for his triumphal entry to Cairo.

The scattering of X Corps at Mersa Matruh disrupted Auchinleck's plan for occupying the Alamein defences. On 29 June, he ordered XXX Corps—South African 1st, Indian 5th and 10th Infantry Divisions—to take the coastal sector on the right of the front and XIII Corps—New Zealand and Indian 5th Divisions—to be on the left. The remains of 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions were to be held as a mobile army reserve. His intention was for the fixed defensive positions to canalize and disorganize the enemy's advance while mobile units would attack their flanks and rear.

On 30 June, Rommel′s Panzer Army Africa approached the Alamein position. The Axis forces were exhausted and understrength. Rommel had driven them forward ruthlessly, being confident that, provided he struck quickly before Eighth Army had time to settle, his momentum would take him through the Alamein position and he could then advance to the Nile with little further opposition. Supplies remained a problem because the Axis staff had originally expected a pause of six weeks after the capture of Tobruk. While captured supplies proved useful, water and ammunition were constantly in short supply while a shortage of transport impeded the distribution of the supplies that the Axis forces did have.

Axis plan of attack

Rommel's plan was for the 90th Light Infantry Division and the two Afrika Korps armoured divisions—15th and 21st Panzer—to penetrate the Eighth Army lines between the Alamein box and Deir el Abyad (which he believed was defended). The 90th Light was then to veer north to cut the coastal road and trap the defenders of the Alamein box (which Rommel thought was occupied by the remains of 50th Infantry Division) and the Afrika Korps would veer right to attack the rear of XIII Corps. An Italian division was to attack the Alamein box from the west and another was to follow 90th Light. Italian XX Corps was to follow the Afrika Korps and deal with the Qattara box while the Italian Littorio Armoured Division
133 Armoured Division Littorio
133. Armoured Division Littorio or 133. Divisione Corazzata Littorio was an armoured division of the Italian Army during World War II. The division was formed in 1939 from the Infantry Division Littorio that had taken part in the Spanish Civil War...

 and German reconnaissance units would protect the right flank.

Panzer Army Africa attacks

At 03:00 on 1 July, 90th Light Infantry Division advanced east but strayed too far north and ran into the 1st South African Division's defences and became pinned down. The 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions of the Afrika Korps were delayed by a sandstorm and then a heavy air attack. It was broad daylight by the time they circled round the back of Deir el Abyad where they found the feature to the east of it occupied by 18th Indian Infantry Brigade
18th Indian Infantry Brigade
The 18th Indian Infantry Brigade was an Infantry formation of the Indian Army during World War II. It was formed in October, 1940 at Meerut in India and assigned to the 8th Indian Infantry Division. It was then detached for independent duties in Abaden in Persia...

 which, after a hasty journey from Iraq, had occupied the exposed position just west of Ruweisat Ridge and east of Deir el Abyad at Deir el Shein late on 28 June to create one of Norrie's additional defensive boxes.

At about 10:00 on 1 July, 21st Panzer Division attacked Deir el Shein. 18th Indian Infantry Brigade—supported by 23 25-pounder guns, 16 of the new 6-pounder anti-tank guns and nine Matilda tanks—held out the whole day in desperate fighting, but by evening the Germans succeeded in overrunning them. The time they bought allowed Auchinleck to organise the defence of the western end of Ruweisat Ridge. Meanwhile, 1st Armoured Division had been sent to intervene at Deir el Shein. They ran into 15th Panzer Division just south of Deir el Shein and drove it west. By the end of the day's fighting, the Afrika Korps had 37 tanks left out of its initial complement of 55.

During the early afternoon, 90th Light had extricated itself from the El Alamein box defences and resumed its move eastward. It came under artillery fire from the three South African brigade groups and was forced to dig in.

On 2 July, Rommel ordered the resumption of the offensive. Once again, 90th Light failed to make progress so Rommel called the Afrika Korps to abandon its planned sweep southward and instead join the effort to break through to the coast road by attacking east toward Ruweisat Ridge. The British defence of Ruweisat Ridge relied on an improvised formation called "Robcol", comprising a regiment each of field artillery and light anti-aircraft artillery and a company of infantry. Robcol—in line with normal British Army practice for ad hoc formations—was named after its commander, Brigadier Robert Waller, the artillery commander of Indian 10th Infantry Brigade. Robcol was able to buy time, and by late afternoon the two British armoured brigades joined the battle with 4th Armoured Brigade engaging 15th Panzer and 22nd Armoured Brigade 21st Panzer respectively. They drove back repeated attacks by the Axis armour, who then withdrew before dusk. The British reinforced Ruweisat on the night of 2 July. The now enlarged Robcol became "Walgroup". Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force (RAF) made heavy air attacks on the Axis units.

The next day, 3 July, Rommel ordered the Afrika Korps to resume its attack on the Ruweisat ridge with the Italian XX Motorised Corps on its southern flank. Italian X Corps, meanwhile were to hold El Mreir. By this stage the Afrika Korps had only 26 operational tanks. There was a sharp armoured exchange south of Ruweisat ridge during the morning and the main Axis advance was held. On 3 July, the RAF flew 780 sorties.

To relieve the pressure on the right and centre of the Eighth Army line, XIII Corps on the left advanced from the Qattara box (known to the New Zealanders as the Kaponga box). The plan was that the New Zealand 2nd Division—with the remains of Indian 5th Division and 7th Motor Brigade under its command—would swing north to threaten the Axis flank and rear. This force encountered the Ariete Armoured Division's artillery, which was driving on the southern flank of the division as it attacked Ruweisat. The Italian commander ordered his battalions to fight their way out independently but the Ariete lost 531 men (about 350 were prisoners), 36 pieces of artillery, six (or eight?) tanks, and 55 trucks. By the end of the day, the Ariete Division had only five tanks. The day ended once again with the Afrika Korps and Ariete coming off second best to the superior numbers of the British 22nd Armoured and 4th Armoured Brigades, frustrating Rommel's attempts to resume his advance. The RAF once again played its part, flying 900 sorties during the day.

To the south, on 5 July the New Zealand group resumed its advance northwards towards El Mreir intending to cut the rear of the Ariete Division. Heavy fire from the Italian Brescia Motorised Division at El Mreir, however, 5 mi (8 km) north of the Qattara box, checked their progress and led XIII Corps to call off its attack.

Rommel digs in

At this point, Rommel decided his exhausted forces could make no further headway without resting and regrouping. He reported to the German High Command that his three German divisions numbered just 1,200–1,500 men each and resupply was proving highly problematic because of enemy interference from the air. He expected to have to remain on the defensive for at least two weeks.

Rommel was by this time suffering from the extended length of his supply lines. The Allied Desert Air Force
Desert Air Force
The Desert Air Force , also known chronologically as Air Headquarters Western Desert, Air Headquarters Libya, AHQ Western Desert, the Western Desert Air Force, Desert Air Force, and the First Tactical Air Force , was an Allied tactical air force initially created from No...

 (DAF) was concentrating fiercely on his fragile and elongated supply routes while British mobile columns moving west and striking from the south were causing havoc in the Axis rear echelons. Rommel could afford these losses even less since shipments from Italy had been substantially reduced (in June, he received 5000 ST (4,535.9 t) of supplies compared with 34000 ST (30,844.3 t) in May and 400 vehicles compared with 2,000 in May). Meanwhile, the Eighth Army was reorganising and rebuilding, benefiting from its short lines of communication. By 4 July, the Australian 9th Division had entered the line in the north, and on 9 July Indian 5th Infantry Brigade also returned taking over the Ruweisat position. At the same time, the fresh Indian 161st Infantry Brigade
161st Indian Infantry Brigade
The 161st Indian Infantry Brigade was an infantry formation of the Indian Army. It was formed in November 1941 and assigned to the 5th Indian Infantry Division. The brigade were then sent to Cyprus as a garrison in case of a German invasion...

 reinforced the depleted Indian 5th Infantry Division.

Tel el Eisa

On 8 July, Auchinleck ordered the new XXX Corps commander—Lieutenant-General William Ramsden
William Havelock Ramsden
Major-General William Havelock Ramsden CB, CBE, DSO, MC was a British Army commander during World War II.-Military career:...

—to capture the low ridges at Tel el Eisa and Tel el Makh Khad and then to push mobile battle groups south toward Deir el Shein and raiding parties west toward the airfields at El Daba. Meanwhile, XIII Corps would prevent the Axis from moving troops north to reinforce the coastal sector. Ramsden tasked the Australian 9th Division with 44th Royal Tank Regiment under command with the Tel el Eisa objective and the South African 1st Division with eight supporting tanks, Tel el Makh Khad. The raiding parties were to be provided by 1st Armoured Division.

Following a bombardment which started at 03:30 on 10 July, the Australian 26th Brigade launched an attack against the ridge north of Tel el Eisa station along the coast (Trig 33). The bombardment was the heaviest barrage yet experienced in North Africa, which created panic in the inexperienced soldiers of the Italian 60th Infantry Division Sabratha who had only just occupied sketchy defences in the sector. The Australian attack took more than 1,500 prisoners, routed an Italian Division and overran the German Signals Intercept Company 621. Meanwhile the South Africans had by late morning taken Tel el Makh Khad and were in covering positions.

Elements of the German 164th Light Division and Italian 101st Motorised Division Trieste arrived to plug the gap torn in the Axis defences. That afternoon and evening, tanks from the German 15. Panzer and Italian Trieste Divisions launched counter-attacks against the Australian positions, the counter-attacks failing in the face of overwhelming Allied artillery and the Australian anti-tank guns.

At first light on 11 July, the Australian 2/24th Battalion supported by tanks from 44th Royal Tank Regiment attacked the western end of Tel el Eisa hill (Point 24). By early afternoon, the feature was captured and was then held against a series of Axis counter-attacks throughout the day. A small column of armour, motorized infantry, and guns then set off to raid Deir el Abyad and caused a battalion of Italian infantry to surrender. Its progress was checked at the Miteirya ridge and it was forced to withdraw that evening to the El Alamein box. During the day, more than 1,000 Italian prisoners were taken.

On 12 July, the 21st Panzer Division launched a counter-attack against Trig 33 and Point 24, which was beaten off after a 2½-hour fight, with more than 600 German dead and wounded left strewn in front of the Australian positions. The next day, 21. Panzerdivision launched an attack against Point 33 and South African positions in the El Alamein box. The attack was halted by intense artillery fire from the defenders. Rommel was still determined to drive the British forces from the northern salient. Although the Australian defenders had been forced back from Point 24, heavy casualties had been inflicted on 21st Panzer Division. Another attack was mounted on 15 July but made no ground against tenacious resistance. On 16 July, the Australians—supported by British tanks—launched an attack to try to take Point 24 but were forced back by German counter-attacks, suffering nearly fifty percent casualties.

After seven days of fierce fighting, the battle in the north for Tel el Eisa salient petered out. Australian 9th Division estimated at least 2,000 Axis troops had been killed and more than 3,700 prisoners of war taken in the battle. Possibly the most important feature of the battle, however, was that the Australians had captured Signals Intercept Company 621. This unit had provided Rommel with priceless intelligence, gleaned from intercepting British radio communications. That source of intelligence was now lost to Rommel.

First Battle of Ruweisat Ridge

As the Axis forces dug in, Auchinleck—having drawn a number of German units to the coastal sector during the Tel el Eisa fighting—developed a plan—codenamed Operation Bacon—to attack the Italian Pavia and Brescia Divisions in the centre of the front at the Ruweisat ridge.

The intention was for the 4th New Zealand Brigade and 5th New Zealand Brigade (on 4th Brigade's right) to attack northwest to seize the western part of the ridge and on their right the Indian 5th Infantry Brigade to capture the eastern part of the ridge in a night attack. Then 2nd Armoured Brigade would pass through the centre of the infantry objectives to exploit toward Deir el Shein and the Miteirya Ridge. On the left, the 22nd Armoured Brigade would be ready to move forward to protect the infantry as they consolidated on the ridge.

The attack commenced at 23:00 on 14 July. The two New Zealand brigades shortly before dawn on 15 July took their objectives, but minefields and pockets of resistance created disarray among the attackers. A number of pockets of resistance were left behind the forward troops' advance which impeded the move forward of reserves, artillery, and support arms. As a result, the New Zealand brigades occupied exposed positions on the ridge without support weapons except for a few anti-tank guns. More significantly, communications with the two British armoured brigades failed, and the British armour did not move forwards to protect the infantry. At first light, a detachment from 15th Panzer division′s 8th Panzer Regiment launched a counter-attack against New Zealand 4th Brigade's 22nd Battalion. A sharp exchange knocked out their anti-tank guns and the infantry found themselves exposed in the open with no alternative but to surrender. About 350 New Zealanders were taken prisoner.

While the 2nd New Zealand 2nd Division attacked the western slopes of Ruweisat ridge, the Indian 5th Brigade made small gains on Ruweisat ridge to the east. By 07:00, word was finally got to 2nd Armoured Brigade which started to move north west. Two regiments became embroiled in a minefield but the third was able to join Indian 5th Infantry 5th Brigade as it renewed its attack. With the help of the armour and artillery, the Indians were able to take their objectives by early afternoon. Meanwhile, the 22nd Armoured Brigade had been engaged at Alam Nayil by 90th Light Division and the Ariete Armoured Division, advancing from the south. While—with help from mobile infantry and artillery columns from 7th Armoured Division—they pushed back the Axis probe with ease, they were prevented from advancing north to protect the New Zealand flank.

Seeing the Brescia and Pavia under pressure, Rommel rushed German troops to Ruweisat. By 15:00, the 3rd Reconnaissance Regiment and part of 21st Panzer Division from the north and 33rd Reconnaissance Regiment and the Baade Group comprising elements from 15th Panzer Division from the south were in place under Lieutenamnt-General (General der Panzertruppe
General der Panzertruppe
General der Panzertruppe was a rank of German Army General introduced by the Wehrmacht in 1935. As the commander of a Panzer Corp this rank corresponds to a US Army Lieutenant-General...

) Walther Nehring
Walther Nehring
Walther Kurt Josef Nehring , was a German general of World War II, known for his involvement with the Afrika Korps. He was also a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords...

. At 17:00, Nehring launched his counter attack. 4th New Zealand Brigade were still short of support weapons and also, by this time, ammunition. Once again, the anti-tank defences were overwhelmed and about 380 New Zealanders were taken prisoner including Captain Charles Upham
Charles Upham
Captain Charles Hazlitt Upham VC and Bar was a New Zealand soldier who earned the Victoria Cross twice during the Second World War: in Crete in May 1941, and at Ruweisat Ridge, Egypt, in July 1942...

 who gained a second Victoria Cross
Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories....

 for his actions including destroying a German tank and several guns and vehicles with grenades despite being shot through the elbow by a machine gun bullet and having his arm broken. At about 18:00, the brigade HQ was overrun. At about 18:15, 2nd Armoured Brigade engaged the German armour and halted the Axis eastward advance. At dusk, Nehring broke off the action.

Early on 16 July, Nehring renewed his attack. Indian 5th Infantry Brigade pushed them back but it was clear from intercepted radio traffic that a further attempt would be made. Accordingly, strenuous preparations to dig in anti-tank guns were made, artillery fire plans organized and a regiment from 22nd Armoured Brigade was sent to reinforce 2nd Armoured Brigade. When Nehring's renewed attack came late in the afternoon, it was repulsed. After the battle, the Indians counted 24 destroyed tanks, as well as armoured cars and numerous anti-tank guns left on the battlefield.

In three day's fighting, the Allies captured more than 2,000 Axis prisoners of war, mostly from the Italian Brescia' and Pavia' Divisions; the New Zealand division suffered 1,405 casualties.

Miteirya Ridge (Ruin Ridge)

To relieve pressure on Ruweisat ridge, Auchinleck ordered the Australian 9th Division to make another attack from the north. In the early hours of 17 July, the Australian 24th Brigade—supported by 44th Royal Tank Regiment ("RTR")
Royal Tank Regiment
The Royal Tank Regiment is an armoured regiment of the British Army. It was formerly known as the Tank Corps and the Royal Tank Corps. It is part of the Royal Armoured Corps and is made up of two operational regiments, the 1st Royal Tank Regiment and the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment...

 and strong fighter cover from the air—assaulted Miteirya ridge (known as "Ruin ridge" to the Australians). The initial night attack went well, with 736 prisoners taken, mostly from the Italian Trento and Trieste motorised divisions. Once again, however, a critical situation for the Axis forces was retrieved by vigorous counter-attacks from hastily assembled German and Italian forces, which forced the Australians to withdraw back to their start line with 300 casualties. Although the Australian Official History of 24th Brigade's 2/32 battalion describes the counterattack force as "German", the Australian historian Mark Johnston reports that German records indicate that it was the Trento Division that overran the Australian battalion.

Second Battle of Ruweisat Ridge (El Mreir)

The Eighth Army now enjoyed a massive superiority in material over the Axis forces: 1st Armoured Division had 173 tanks and more in reserve or transit, while Rommel possessed only 38 German tanks and 51 Italian tanks although his armoured units had some 100 tanks awaiting repair.

Auchinleck’s plan was for Indian Infantry 161st Brigade to attack along Ruweisat ridge to take Deir el Shein, while the New Zealand 6th Brigade attacked from south of the ridge to the El Mreir depression. At daylight, two British armoured brigades—2nd Armoured Brigade and the fresh 23rd Armoured Brigade—would sweep through the gap created by the infantry. The plan was complicated and ambitious.

The infantry night attack began at 16:30 on 21 July. The New Zealand attack took their objectives in the El Mreir depression but, once again, many vehicles failed to arrive and they were short of support arms in an exposed position. At daybreak on 22 July, the British armoured brigades again failed to advance. At daybreak on 22 July, Nehring's 5th and 8th Panzer Regiments responded with a rapid counter-attack which quickly overran the New Zealand infantry in the open, inflicting more than 900 casualties on the New Zealanders. 2nd Armoured Brigade sent forward two regiments to help but they were halted by mines and anti-tank fire.

The attack by Indian 161st Brigade had mixed fortunes. On the left, the initial attempt to clear the western end of Ruweisat failed but at 08:00 a renewed attack by the reserve battalion succeeded. On the right, the attacking battalion broke into the Deir el Shein position but was driven back in hand-to-hand fighting.

Compounding the disaster at El Mreir, at 08:00 the commander of 23rd Armoured Brigade ordered his brigade forward, intent on following his orders to the letter. Major-General Gatehouse—commanding 1st Armoured Division—had been unconvinced that a path had been adequately cleared in the minefields and had suggested the advance be cancelled. However, XIII Corps commander—Lieutenant-General William Gott
William Gott
Lieutenant-General William Henry Ewart Gott CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC , nicknamed "Strafer", was a British Army officer during both the First and Second World Wars, reaching the rank of lieutenant-general when serving in the British Eighth Army.-Military career:Educated at Harrow School he was...

—rejected this and ordered the attack but on a centre line 1 mi (1.6 km) south of the original plan which he incorrectly believed was mine-free. These orders failed to get through and the attack went ahead as originally planned. The brigade found itself mired in mine fields and under heavy fire. They were then counter-attacked by 21st Panzer at 11:00 and forced to withdraw. The 23rd Armoured Brigade was destroyed, with the loss of 40 tanks destroyed and 47 badly damaged.

At 17:00, Gott ordered 5th Indian Infantry Division to execute a night attack to capture the western half of Ruweisat ridge and Deir el Shein. 3/14th Punjab Regiment
14th Punjab Regiment
The 14th Punjab Regiment was a regiment of the British Indian Army from 1922 to 1947. It was transferred to the Pakistan Army on Partition of India in 1947, and amalgamated with the 1st, 15th and 16th Punjab Regiments in 1956, to form the Punjab Regiment....

 from 9th Indian Infantry Brigade
9th Indian Infantry Brigade
The 9th Indian Infantry Brigade was an Infantry formation of the Indian Army during World War II. It was formed in India and converted to the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade and a new 9th Brigade was then formed all in September 1939. The brigade was assigned to the 5th Indian Infantry Division in June...

 attacked at 02:00 on 23 July but failed as they lost their direction. A further attempt in daylight succeeded in breaking into the position but intense fire from three sides resulted in control being lost as the commanding officer was killed, and four of his senior officers were wounded or went missing.

Attack on Tel el Eisa resumed

To the north, Australian 9th Division continued its attacks. At 06:00 on 22 July, Australian 26th Brigade attacked Tel el Eisa and Australian 24th Brigade attacked Tel el Makh Khad toward Mieirya (Ruin Ridge). It was during this fighting that Arthur Stanley Gurney
Arthur Stanley Gurney
Arthur Stanley "Stan" Gurney VC was an Australian recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces....

 performed the actions for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross
Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories....

. The fighting for Tel el Eisa was costly, but by the afternoon the Australians controlled the feature. That evening, Australian 24th Brigade attacked Tel el Makh Khad with the tanks of 50th RTR in support. The tank unit had not been trained in close infantry support and failed to coordinate with the Australian infantry. The result was that the infantry and armour advanced independently and having reached the objective 50th RTR lost 23 tanks because they lacked infantry support.

Once more, the Eighth Army had failed to destroy Rommel’s forces, despite its overwhelming superiority in men and equipment. On the other hand, for Rommel the situation continued to be grave as, despite successful defensive operations, his infantry had suffered heavy losses and he reported that "the situation is critical in the extreme".

Eighth Army's final attacks fail

On 26/27 July, Auchinleck launched Operation Manhood in the northern sector in a final attempt to break the Axis forces. XXX Corps was reinforced with 1st Armoured Division (less 22nd Armoured Brigade), 4th Light Armoured Brigade, and 69th Infantry Brigade. The plan was to break the enemy line south of Miteirya ridge and exploit north-west. The South Africans were to make and mark a gap in the minefields to the south-east of Miteirya by midnight of 26/27 July. By 01:00 on 27 July, 24th Australian Infantry Brigade was to have captured the eastern end of the Miteirya ridge and would exploit toward the north-west. The 69th Infantry Brigade would pass through the minefield gap created by the South Africans to Deir el Dhib and clear and mark gaps in further minefields. The 2nd Armoured Brigade would then pass through to El Wishka and would be followed by 4th Light Armoured Brigade which would attack the Axis lines of communication.

This was the third attempt to break through in the northern sector, and the Axis defenders were expecting the attack. Like the previous attacks, it was hurriedly and therefore poorly planned. The Australian 24th Brigade managed to take their objectives on Miteirya Ridge by 02:00 of 27 July. To the south, the British 69th Brigade set off at 01:30 and managed to take their objectives by about 08:00. However, the supporting anti-tank units became lost in the darkness or delayed by minefields, leaving the attackers isolated and exposed when daylight came. There followed a period during which reports from the battlefront regarding the minefield gaps were confused and conflicting. As a consequence, the advance of 2nd Armoured Brigade was delayed. Rommel launched an immediate counterattack and the German armoured battlegroups overran the two forward battalions of 69th Brigade. Meanwhile, 50th RTR supporting the Australians was having difficulty locating the minefield gaps made by Australian 2/24th Battalion. They failed to find a route through and in the process were caught by heavy fire and lost 13 tanks. The unsupported 2/28th Australian battalion on the ridge was overrun. The 69th Brigade suffered 600 casualties and the Australians 400 for no gain.

The Eighth Army was exhausted, and on 31 July Auchinleck ordered an end to offensive operations and the strengthening of the defences to meet a major counter-offensive.
Rommel was later to blame the failure to breakthrough to the Nile on how the sources of supply to his army had dried up and how:
Rommel complained bitterly about the failure of important Italian convoys to get through to him desperately needed tanks and supplies-always blaming the Italian Supreme Command, never suspecting British codebreaking.

Aftermath

The battle was a stalemate, but it had halted the Axis advance on Alexandria
Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

 (and then Cairo
Cairo
Cairo , is the capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Arab world and Africa, and the 16th largest metropolitan area in the world. Nicknamed "The City of a Thousand Minarets" for its preponderance of Islamic architecture, Cairo has long been a centre of the region's political and cultural life...

 and ultimately the Suez Canal
Suez Canal
The Suez Canal , also known by the nickname "The Highway to India", is an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Opened in November 1869 after 10 years of construction work, it allows water transportation between Europe and Asia without navigation...

). The Eighth Army had suffered over 13,000 casualties in July including 4,000 in the New Zealand Division, 3,000 in the Indian 5th Infantry Division and 2,552 battle casualties in the 9th Australian Division) but had taken 7,000 prisoners and inflicted heavy damage on Axis men and machines.

In early August, Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, was a predominantly Conservative British politician and statesman known for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the century and served as Prime Minister twice...

 and General Alan Brooke—the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff—visited Cairo on their way to meet Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 6 May 1941 to 5 March 1953. He was among the Bolshevik revolutionaries who brought about the October Revolution and had held the position of first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee...

 in Moscow. They decided to replace Auchinleck, appointing XIII Corps commander William Gott
William Gott
Lieutenant-General William Henry Ewart Gott CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC , nicknamed "Strafer", was a British Army officer during both the First and Second World Wars, reaching the rank of lieutenant-general when serving in the British Eighth Army.-Military career:Educated at Harrow School he was...

 to the Eighth Army command and General Sir Harold Alexander as C-in-C Middle East Command
Middle East Command
The Middle East Command was a British Army Command established prior to the Second World War in Egypt. Its primary role was to command British land forces and co-ordinate with the relevant naval and air commands to defend British interests in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean region.The...

. Persia and Iraq were to be split from Middle East Command as a separate Persia and Iraq Command and Auchinleck offered the post of C-in-C (which he refused). However, Gott was killed on the way to take up his command when a Messerschmitt
Messerschmitt
Messerschmitt AG was a famous German aircraft manufacturing corporation named for its chief designer, Willy Messerschmitt, and known primarily for its World War II fighter aircraft, notably the Bf 109 and Me 262...

  intercepted his air transport and its fire shot Gott through the heart. Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was appointed in his place.

A second attempt by Rommel to bypass or break the Commonwealth position was repulsed in the Battle of Alam Halfa
Battle of Alam Halfa
The Battle of Alam el Halfa took place between 30 August and 5 September 1942 south of El Alamein during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Panzerarmee Afrika—a German-Italian force commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel—attempted an envelopment of the British 8th Army,...

 in August, and in October the Eighth Army decisively defeated the Axis forces in the Second Battle of El Alamein
Second Battle of El Alamein
The Second Battle of El Alamein marked a major turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. The battle took place over 20 days from 23 October – 11 November 1942. The First Battle of El Alamein had stalled the Axis advance. Thereafter, Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery...

.

See also

  • North African Campaign timeline
    North African Campaign timeline
    - 1940:* 10 June: The Kingdom of Italy declares war upon France and the United Kingdom* 14 June: British forces cross from Egypt into Libya and capture Fort Capuzzo* 16 June: The first tank battle of the North African Campaign takes place, the "Battle of Girba"...

  • List of World War II Battles
  • Second Battle of El Alamein
    Second Battle of El Alamein
    The Second Battle of El Alamein marked a major turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. The battle took place over 20 days from 23 October – 11 November 1942. The First Battle of El Alamein had stalled the Axis advance. Thereafter, Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery...


External links

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