The Second Battle of El Alamein was an absolutely signature battle for Lieutenant General Montgomery. He was a careful and thorough leader, having seen and been deeply affected by the carnage of World War One, and he refused to launch this offensive until he was completely confident that it would end in victory, despite repeated urging from Churchill, who was desperate for a win prior to Operation ‘Torch’, the landings in French North Africa, planned for early November 1942. That being the case, he made sure he started the battle with every possible advantage. He had, according to ‘The World at War’ by the Reader’s Digest 195,000 troops to Germany and Italy’s 104,000, 1000 tanks to their 500, 2,300 guns to their 1,300 and 530 aeroplanes to their 350. As if that wasn’t enough of an advantage, thanks to the intelligence services back in England, who had broken the German codes, he knew Rommel’s battle plan, and he knew that Rommel himself had temporarily been invalided back to Germany with Jaundice and high blood pressure, leaving General George Stumme in command. No wonder Montgomery was able to assure Churchill that he would win.
Of course, it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for the Allies. Rommel too was careful and thorough, and he had known for some time that a major offensive must be on the cards, and had planned accordingly. His defences in Egypt stretched from the coast near El Alamein south as far as the impassable Qattara Depression. The forbidding desert landscape was peppered with defences, including mile upon mile of thick, deep barbed wire and an enormous mine field, not to mention the tanks and anti-tank guns. There was no way around the obstacle course, so the Allied troops would be forced to press straight through it.
The assault, codenamed operation ‘Lightfoot’, began at 9.40 pm on 23rd October 1942 with an almighty barrage, which though it lasted just 15 minutes, was vigorous enough to be heard from Alexandria, 60 miles away. Under cover of the barrage the Sappers bravely moved forward, cutting wire to let the infantry and the tanks through. At 10pm two searchlights crossed in the sky, signalling the start of the assault proper, kicking off with an even greater bombardment. The Eighth Army pressed forward to meet the Panzerarmee Afrika. The Highlanders and two armoured brigades of Major General Oliver Leese’s XXX Corps, supported by Australian, Indian, New Zealander and South African Troops led the main charge to the North, with the 1st, 8th and 10th Armoured Divisions of Major General Herbert Lumsden’s X Corps moving in more slowly behind them to mop up remaining defenders. Meanwhile, Major General Brian Harrock’s XIII Corps, including the 7th Armoured Division and two infantry divisions, staged a diversionary attack to the south; ‘Monty’ had carefully laid a false trail in the days prior to the offensive, suggesting that this was the main attack.
At first the British troops made great progress, taking over large stretches of the Miteirya Ridge from the Germans and Italians. However, they soon ran into difficulties. The defences were so thick that the Sappers were only able to cut them slowly. Some infantry fighters raced on, but the armoured divisions got tangled up in the wire and held up the trailing infantry divisions, so that the Sappers had to work even harder to clear the way. Before they had finished the sun came up, and the German anti-tank guns were able to pick off a good number of Allied men and tanks. However, the Germans soon met with a crippling difficulty of their own. On the morning of 24th October General Stumme set out to view the battlefield first-hand. His car came under attack, and the Corporal driver panicked and swerved heavily, causing the General to either fall or jump free of the vehicle. Unaware of his exit, the unfortunate Corporal returned to base, where he likely got the dressing-down of a lifetime. Days later the General, who suffered from high blood pressure, was discovered lying alone in the desert. He had died from a heart attack, a sad end for a good soldier. Major General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma was forced to take temporary command of the Panzerarmee Afrika.
Rommel, once informed of the tragedy, rushed back to take over, but found a crippled army awaiting him by the 25th, with a huge portion of available tanks having been destroyed. Things only got worse from there, as the Allied Desert Air Force, which essentially had supreme control of the African skies, bombed away to its heart’s content for the next two days. The fighting now moved to Kidney Ridge. The 21st and 5th Panzer Divisions went above and beyond in their attempts to win back the ground, making four heroic charges, enduring an overnight bombing attack and charging again the next day.
However, it was all in vain. ‘Monty’, having been told of the 21st Division’s movement to Kidney Ridge, withdrew the bulk of the troops fighting south of that area and directed the full fury of the Eighth Army on the unfortunate Panzers in Operation ‘Super-charge’ on 28th October. The British tanks took a heavy battering on that day, and especially on the next when the rising sun left them in full view of the enemy, but Leese’s XXX Corps successfully pushed two miles behind enemy lines, while the 7th Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders captured the enemy Field Headquarters.
From then on, it seemed there was nothing for Rommel to do but pull back; however, Hitler went into a rage and refused to allow the retreat, insisting that the troops fight on. ‘The World at Arms’ quotes Rommel as writing in a letter to his wife, “I lie open-eyed, wracking my brains for a way out of this plight for my poor troops… The dead are lucky, it’s all over for them.” It was around this time that Rommel started to question Hitler’s sanity, and he wasn’t the only one. The Afrika Corps' armour were led into the fray by Thoma, and before permission finally came to retreat at the end of day Thoma had defied the first order and pulled them out of the fighting, actually setting his tank alight and calmly awaiting capture. Rommel fled at a rate, delaying the pursuing Allies with every ounce of determination he possessed, planting mines, blowing bridges and generally refusing to surrender. Still, it would be a matter of months before North Africa fell entirely to the Allies.
In the Second Battle of El Alamein 50,000 Axis troops were killed or captured to the Allies’ 13,500, and Rommel’s force of tanks was virtually wiped out. There could be no doubting who had won the fight, and Churchill was so delighted that he ordered the church bells of England, silent since 1940 in case they should be needed to signal an invasion, to ring out in triumph.