The first battle of El Alamein was a battle of the Western Desert Campaign in Africa. The battle was fought between the Axis forces, led by General Erwin Rommel, and the Allied forces, commanded by Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck. After the defeat at Gazala, the British 8th Army retreated to Egypt, close to El Alamein, on the Mediterranean coast. Auchinleck created strong defensive positions, with bunkers at the end of each line and machine gun nests in the middle. He was waiting for Rommel’s imminent attack.
The German offensive was repelled. The Allies did not manage to break through the German lines. However, through these actions, they stopped Rommel in his advance towards Alexandria. In spite of this, Churchill replaced Auchinleck with Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery. Thus, Montgomery took over command of the 8th Army.
The two armies faced each other around an obscure railway station in the desert, El Alamein. Each army had been re-equipped and re-supplied as well as possible. Herein lay the key to Montgomery’s victory. The German supply lines were far too long. They were constantly attacked by British aviation. Thus, the Germans lacked the necessary fuel to defeat the British 8th Army.
It has been maintained that Rommel should never have taken part in the Battle of El Alamein. Instead, he should have retreated behind his long communication lines, into Libya. General Alfred Jodl’s assistant, General Warlimont, explained to Rommel’s General Staff how important it was for the troops to stay at El Alamein. He spoke of German plans to invade Persia and Iraq from the Caucasus. The goal was for the Allies to be tied up defending Egypt, thus unable to send troops to other regions of the Middle East.
The morale of the Italian air forces, armored divisions, artillery and paratroopers was, in general, high. However, the regular Italian infantry - making up the majority of Italian forces in Africa - was not faring so well. As at the beginning of the war, the Italians fought bravely when they were properly led, equipped, trained and fed. However, in the final phases of the African campaign, things changed. The Italian troops, like the Germans, suffered from a lack of supplies.
The calm after the storm of the first battle of El Alamein allowed Montgomery to prepare his troops. Detailed orders were sent from his general headquarters concerning the army’s logistics, equipment, physical condition, morale, organization and discipline. Many of the troops sent as reinforcements had never before fought in the desert. Thus, in the weeks of relative calm which followed, his conviction that intensive instruction is vital was fully applied. This gave Montgomery a firm resolve against the insistences of Churchill, who was pressing for a rapid attack.
An essential aspect of the imminent clash was the air superiority that the Allies had won over the Luftwaffe, beginning with the battle of Alam el Halfa. This was transformed, during the second battle of El Alamein, almost into air supremacy. Montgomery annexed the RAF headquarters, led by Vice-Admiral of aviation, Arthur Coningham, to his own command. Even though he later gave too little credit to this man in his writings, the two commands collaborated well.
Through Operation Lightfoot, Montgomery hoped to create two paths through the large Axis minefield, in the northern area. The goal was for the British armored vehicles to be able to pass through to meet the German tanks. The diversionary attack in the center and south of the line would keep the majority of the Axis forces far from the northern area. Montgomery was expecting a 12-day battle, in three stages: breaking through the lines, battle between the German and British armored divisions, and “cleaning up” the enemy.
Montgomery withdrew part of the heavy tanks situated further south and ended the coastal assault, stopping Operation Lightfoot. This decision caused immense consternation in London, where the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, convinced Churchill that Montgomery had given up fighting in the middle of battle. Far from giving up, the commander of the 8th Army launched Operation Supercharge. Montgomery withdrew a brigade from each of the 44th, 50th and 51st Divisions, which were involved in the assault. He sent them towards the south of the Kidney Ridge, against the Italian infantry.
The next stage of the battle began with the launch of Operation Supercharge. The goal of this operation was to destroy the German tanks and the enemy’s supply routes and fuel provisions. The Durham Brigade of the 50th Infantry Division, the Seaforth and Cameron Highlander battalions and a Maori battalion from the 2nd New Zealand Division occupied the sought-for positions. The British created a 6.5 km-wide breach in the Axis lines. Then, the 9th Armored Brigade broke through this breach, arriving behind Axis lines. At that point, Rommel ordered the general retreat of the entire Axis forces.
Montgomery’s success at El Alamein cannot be underestimated, even though he had a two-to-one superiority in regards of artillery and troops. The accepted vision in military strategy was that the attacker needed to have three-to-one superiority in order to be certain of victory. Also, as one of his officers remarked, the military historian Peter Young: “If, for once, a British general managed to get his army across the start line with a numerical superiority over the enemy, this should be a matter for praise rather than complaint!”
El Alamein was a decisive victory in the African campaign for the Allies. Winston Churchill affirmed: “We can almost say that before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”
The British 8th Army was taken by surprise by Rommel’s retreat, and did not manage to halt the German retreat at Fuka and Mersa Matruh. Thus began a period of following the Axis forces through Libya and then through Tunisia. This ended in the following year, with the surrender of the Axis forces.