The Battle of Egypt

L SPRINGBOK film of sand covers underlying rock. In the south, the rock breaks through the sand into outcrops, and then falls away in a sheer cliff to the Qattara Depression. South of the de­pression again stretch soft sand-hills impass­able for cars, and the single, track from Siwa to the Bahariya oasis and the Nile Valley can beheld with ease against an invader. The El Alamcin-Qattara position cannot therefore be turned. It can only be pierced by a frontal attack, and that is what Rommel set himself to do. On June 30th, he launched against it the tanks of the Littorio Division, but they were driven back with heavy loss by the remains of our armour. Next day, his infantry had come up, and he flung them straight at the South African Division holding the north end of the position. Every attack was bloodily repulsed. Further south, the battle-worn 4th Indian Division dealt faithfully with the tanks all day. But when the assault was renewed at night, Indianan strong-point was over-run. Rommel thought he was through and on July 2nd the German High Command announced to the world that he was “pursuing the beaten British into the Nile Valley.” But this critical day in fact witnessed his frustration. When he tried to “pursue ”he was furiously counter-attacked, and by night­fall had started to withdraw. Renewed attacks on the next two days proved equally futile and costly. Thereafter the 9th Australian Division counter-attacked and took Tell El Eisa hill. For some days longer the battle swayed bloodily to and fro, neither side being able to dislodge the other. But we had held our ground and the greatest credit is due to General Auchinleck for having robbed Rommel of the fruits of his victory by this successful stand after so along retreat. During the following month, two consider­able attacks by our forces improved our positions, but showed that the enemy was too strongly consolidated to be shifted by any­thing short of a large-scale offensive. But the door was shut tight against anything lesson his part also. General Auchinleck was succeeded asC.-in-C. Middle East by General Alexander, who had been the last man to leave Dunkirk and had so brilliantly brought our small army safely out of Burma. General Montgomery succeeded General Ritchie in command of the Eighth Army. These changes had hardly taken effect when Rommel made a serious bid to breakthrough. Our lines to the south, towards the Qattara Depression, had been (probably deliberately) left gappy. If the enemy had tried a headlong rush through, he could have been met by a heavy blow from the north against his flank and by a reserve army moving out from the Delta in his front. On August 30th, in a night attack, the enemy did breakthrough this lightly defended southern sector between the Ruweisat ridge and Himeimat, and having blocked the southern edge of this gap, he turned north behind our lines and made for the coast with the intention of bringing our armour to battle. The bait was refused. Remaining on the de­fensive, the Eighth Army, during three days, hit back at the enemy with bombing, artillery fire, and concentric harassing attacks. He dared not leave an unbroken army on his flank supplies were difficult to come by and petrol was running short. On September 3rd, having been badly mauled, he began to retire. Undercover of three fierce attacks next day, he hauled his men and armour off, with nothing to show for heavy losses except the occupation of the original no-man’s landon the southern sector. We did not followup this repulse, though it was a substantial defensive victory, for six GENERAL SIR HAROLD ALEXANDER, COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF. MIDDLE EAST. weeks. There were sound reasons for this caution. General Alexander wanted to make sure that once he started he could goon. He was still training the 10th Corps—designed as the spear-head of his armour—far behind the front and all the time more and more essential material was arriving in Egypt. For the victory which this book portrays was not suddenly improvised. In his prelimin­ary review of the battle which started on October 23rd, the Prime Minister showed how victory was built up by long-term planning. The United Kingdom divisions (the 44th, 50th and 51st) which gave new weight to our assault, actually left these islands in May and June. When the news of the fall of Tobruk reached the Prime Minister, he was in the United States consulting President Roosevelt. The President at once ordered the despatch of the first batch of Sherman tanks to the Middle East, even withdrawing from the U.S. Army many of those already delivered. A few hundred more of the British six-pounder anti­tank guns would probably have saved us from defeat at Gazala. They were therein quantity at El Alamein, and the tremendous value of the American supplies should not obscure the fact, which President Roosevelt so generously made public, that all abut fraction of the Eighth Army’s equipment came from British factories. The scale of air reinforcement is shown in the use of no fewer than seven hundred bombers in the attack, which virtually grounded and disrupted the enemy’s air force. These preparations were, however, only inline with the consistent determination of the United Kingdom Government to hold and then to extend the bastion of the Middle East. More remarkable even than the torrent of reinforcements which poured into Egypt be­tween May and November, 1942, was the steady trickle which reached there even at the time of Dunkirk when there was not one fully- equipped division in these islands to resist imminent invasion. In times of scarcity as in times of abundance the Middle East fronts were first patched and then galvanised. Some­thing new was always going into Africa. A word should be added about the photo­graphers who took almost all the pictures in this book. They belong to No. I Army Film and Photo Section, attached to the Public Rela­tions Service in the Middle East. It is hoped that the reader may feel inclined to agree that the lens, if not mightier than the sword, has done the sword full justice.
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