Australians in the first battle of El Alamein July 1942.
We have been in action in the desert again, and it has been action of a kind the like of which we have never seen before--Tobruk was a picnic compared to this, it is real war, with the spurs on ... (2)
Private Harry Frazer (2/24th Bn, AIF) 23 July 1942
Three major battles occurred around El Alamein in the Egyptian desert between July and November 1942. (3) Of the three, it is the final decisive battle in October/November that is most celebrated and best remembered. It is known simply as 'The Battle of El Alamein' from which its architect Lieutenant General Montgomery drew much of his fame. For Australians the fame of our 9th Division is also partly drawn from this battle which is often described as the turning point of the North African campaign. However a closer look at the whole period at Alamein reveals that the first battle in July is a rival to that claim. While not as decisive as the final battle, the July battle was a desperate struggle of high stakes and high drama, where victory could have gone either way.
The lead up
The struggle for North Africa saw both sides' fortunes rise and fall in the first two years of the campaign, 1940 and 1941. A series of sweeping offensives had driven first one side back, then the other. At each turn the campaign became larger as more men and materiel were sent in. The Axis forces in North Africa comprised German and Italian troops and were known by 1942 as Panzerarmee Afrika, led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, 'The Desert Fox.' Opposing him was the British Eighth Army commanded by General Claude Auchinleck. This army comprised British, Australian, New Zealand, South African and Indian troops as well as small contingents of Free French and Greeks.
In early 1942 the pendulum swung sharply in favour of the Axis. After being driven back across the Cyrenaican 'bulge' to El Agheila in December 1941, Rommel received reinforcements including much needed tanks. On 5 January 1942 he counterattacked, driving the Allies all the way back to Gazala, 100 kms west of Tobruk. From this thrust, the Allies lost half their armour and vast quantities of stores and equipment.
Both sides then paused near Gazala and there was a lull in fighting. On 26 May Rommel launched the next stage of his offensive, employing a sweep to the south with strong armoured forces to outflank the Allied line. Fierce fighting ensued for the next three weeks at places known as Knightsbridge, Bir Hakeim and 'the Cauldron.' Despite gallant resistance the Allied commanders badly mismanaged this battle, resulting in their line breaking, then failing back to the east in some disorder. A week later on 21 June, Rommel finally captured the vital port of Tobruk. After holding out so stubbornly the previous year, Tobruk fell easily and about 35,000 Allied prisoners were taken. The following day Rommel was promoted to Field Marshal.
Retreat into Egypt: 22 June--30 June
Eighth Army fell back to Mersa Matruh, about 200 miles inside Egypt. On 25 June Auchinleck assumed command of the Eighth Army after relieving Lieutenant General Ritchie. But Rommel was wasting no time. On the 26th he struck again and forced another disorderly retreat. By contrast, the New Zealand Division managed an orderly fighting withdrawal to Allied lines after being completely cut off. Thus nearing the end of June, Rommel had forced the Allies back deep into Egypt, and the capture of Cairo and the Suez Canal seemed a very real possibility. Rommel's confidence was high. On 27 June he wrote to his wife,
We're still on the move and hope to keep it up until the final goal. It takes a lot out of one, of course, but it's the chance of a lifetime. The enemy is fighting back desperately with his air force. PS: Italy in July might still be possible. Get passports! (4)
In July however, Rommel was to become rather too busy to take that holiday.
Coinciding with the Allied defeat at Mersa Matruh, The Australian 9th Division still in Syria, suddenly received orders to pull out. Their destination, then known only to the officers, was the object of much speculation. Were they going back to the North African desert or home to fight the Japanese? Intrigue heightened when orders were given to remove all vehicle markings and to conceal colour patches and their distinctive slouch hats, while some signallers were to stay behind to generate fake transmissions indicating the entire division was still there. When the convoys rushed down through Palestine to the Suez Canal, word came through that Mersa Matruh had fallen and the Eighth Army was in serious trouble. It now became obvious that the division would be facing their old enemy again, and soon ...
The Alamein line
The Allies now pinned all their hopes on their new defensive position hinged on the little railway stop of El Alamein. Here, the battlefield narrowed between the coast and the impassable Qattara Depression, just forty miles south. Defensive positions were hastily improved to make several strong points along the line. For Aucbinleck, things were going from bad to worse. Attempting to rally his army from headlong retreat, he needed a firm display of leadership. He had to demonstrate that a determined stand was to be made at Alamein, while also preparing for the very real possibility that his army may again be defeated and have to withdraw rapidly to avoid total destruction. This uncertainty played on the minds and morale of the troops. (5)
As well as the uncertainty at the front, Allied rear areas were also showing signs of collapse, bordering on panic. The 'Cairo flap' as it was called, resulted from the sudden departure of the Royal Navy Fleet from Alexandria and warning orders for GHQ to prepare to move out. Some foreign diplomats left, and at GHQ in Cairo they started burning documents.
One Australian soldier on his way to the front at this time wrote in his diary,
Our guns passed through the city of Cairo. It was no triumphal procession. Indifferent to our travel-stained blackened convoy of guns and vehicles, the citizens scarcely glanced at us, let alone gave us a cheer or a wave. They were preparing to welcome Rommel ... the shopkeepers had plenty of Nazi flags in stock.' (6)
There was now much hasty repositioning of Allied forces to handle the emerging crisis. The Eighth Army's XXX Corps was positioned to hold the northern sector of the front including El Alamein and the all important coast road. Further south XIII Corps held the southern sector. As auxiliary troops and equipment streamed back from the front, 9th Division was briefly tasked with the defence of Cairo, then the Nile Delta near Alexandria. A few days later however, they were ordered to the front at El Alamein to join XXX Corps.
The opening moves: 1-4 July
Rommel attacked the Alamein line early on 1 July hoping to dislodge Eighth Army and open the way to Cairo and Suez. Delays in bringing up his forces hampered the attack and it soon bogged down. The Allies had by then regrouped enough to repulse the attack and make some small counterattacks of their own. They owed much to the tenacity of 18th Indian Brigade and to the Desert Air Force (DAF) who bombed them incessantly. Over the next two days Axis attacks again faltered as more organised British armour came into play. The New Zealanders also delivered a severe blow by demolishing the Italian Ariete Armoured Division, capturing their artillery and taking many prisoners.
Signs were now showing that Rommel's army was overstrained. They had been through five weeks of battle from Gazala to Mersa Matruh, and were now deep into Egypt, severely stretching their supply lines. Rommel did seem acutely aware of the problem, writing at the time, '... in modern warfare supplies decide the battle.' (7) Due to battle casualties, the Axis forces had also become dangerously weak in manpower, the German 90th Light Division having only 1500 effectives skewed the meaning of a light division to the extreme! Of more concern was the fact that his German tank force had dwindled to just twenty six effectives. They were now partly relying on captured British vehicles and equipment to continue the drive east. On the other hand, the Allies were assembling all they could muster in troops, artillery and tanks, and by now their growing strength in the air was telling. As 2/48th Battalion's war diary recorded on 2 July,
There is much air activity over our area but it is all ours to date. After the time this unit spent in Tobruk when the sight of one of our planes was a miracle, this is indeed a very welcome change.
At this point Rommel accepted that he must now regroup and consolidate his position. His Chief of Staff, Friedrich von Mellenthin later wrote,
Everyone realised that the offensive which had opened on 26 May, and which had achieved such spectacular victories, had at last come to an end ... we had failed. (8)
Rommel pulled his tanks out of the front line for a quick reorganisation and refit, their place being taken by Italian infantry divisions. Auchinleck, sensing the enemy was weakening and vulnerable, ordered attacks but these were poorly conducted and soon fizzled out. His orders at this time suffered from being sometimes too ambiguous and even contradictory, coupled with his failure to stress their urgency. It was an opportunity wasted as von Mellenthin later agreed,
On the morning of 4 July 1942 the position of Panzerarmee Africa was perilous ... we could not have resisted a determined attack by Eighth Army ... We survived 4 July with no real damage except to our nerves ... the great opportunity of the British had passed ... (9)
During those first days of July, the fate of the whole campaign had hung in the balance. Both sides were critically weakened and disorganised, and had missed opportunities for decisive victories. They now took time to reorganise and rebuild their strength.
The next round
The vanguard of the Australian 9th Division arrived at the front on 5 July. They were a welcome boost for the battered Eighth Army. While not having its full establishment of guns and vehicles, it was the only division that was both fully rested and full strength in men. Moreover, despite having many unblooded reinforcements, the division had a strong cadre of veterans experienced in desert warfare, including its commander, Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead. Now, after being persuaded by Morshead to let the division fight together rather than disperse into brigade groups, Auchinleck planned to put them straight on the attack in the vital northern sector along the coast.
For his attack, Morshead chose the 26th Brigade (2/23rd, 2/24th, 2/48th Battalions), reinforced with anti-tank and machine guns. The whole of XXX Corps artillery would be in support, as would the DAF, plus some tanks. The plan was to capture Points 26, 23 and Trig 33 along the three mile coastal ridge, then turn and take the Tel el Eisa feature just over a mile further southwest. Tel el Eisa was also known by a loose translation as the 'Hill of Jesus'. To coincide with the Australian attack, the South Africans were to advance and take two points on the Makh Khad Ridge (about five miles to the south), while an armoured raiding party was to race up the coast road to El Daba attacking enemy supply lines. Over the next few days, the troops rehearsed the attack. Patrols ventured out during the night, right up to the enemy defences at Point 26. They confirmed intelligence reports that the Italian Sabratha Division opposite them was low in morale, poorly dug in and not alert. (10)
Auchinleck also knew on 8 July from Ultra and Y (wireless) intercepts that Rommel was massing his strongest units in the south for an attack. This is evident in Panzerarmee instructions of 9 July that ordered preparations to resume the offensive, in the belief that Eighth Army was about to withdraw. On 9 July Rommel attacked the southernmost sector of the Alamein line at Naqb Abu Dweis. But the New Zealanders who were holding this position, had been ordered to pull back shortly before this attack went in. Consequently, Rommel's attack succeeded, meeting no opposition. Encouraged by this and believing the Allies were going to make a general withdrawal, Rommel decided to quickly follow up the next morning to catch the Allies on the hop. He spent the night near Bab el Qattara with the 21st Panzer Division but had not long been asleep when he was awakened by the distant thudding of artillery coming from the north. He 'at once had an inkling that it boded no good.' (11)
The perfect attack: 10 July
At 0330, 2/48th Battalion (Bn) moved out for its first objective, Point 26. The plan was to seize it by surprise, approaching on foot and with no artillery support. The artillery would then come to life and support the further objectives. Suspense filled the air as the Australians stalked quietly closer. Then, just as they had almost reached it, an enemy plane dropped a parachute flare directly over Pt 26 that lit the whole place up like daytime.
The Battalion "froze" to a man and the sigh of relief when the flare hit the ground was almost audible. Everyone expected a terrific outburst of fire, but all remained quiet and the advance continued. (12)
The Italians obviously had not a single man keeping watch ...
The battalion swept up onto Pt 26 and quickly overwhelmed its defenders many of whom were asleep. About 400 prisoners were taken. The time was now 0455, and the battalion went for its second objective, Pt 23. Following on the heels of their supporting artillery barrage, they took it just as dawn was breaking, and secured many more prisoners.
Meanwhile, 2/24th Bn had moved out at 0430 and advanced along the coast. Delayed by vehicles bogging and increasing enemy resistance, they pressed on. Artillery fire pounded their objective, Trig 33. By first light they had taken it and were digging in. Shortly after, planes of the Desert Air Force swept the battlefield in support, among them, fellow Australians from 3 Squadron RAAF. Meanwhile the South Africans had all but captured their objectives when they saw the pre-arranged Very light signal to withdraw. Flabbergasted, they complied. As for the planned exploitation by armoured columns, enemy tank and artillery fire prevented their breakout and for the time being these plans were cancelled.
Further east, 2/48th Bn now turned its attention to the third of its objectives, the area around Tel el Eisa railway station (a solitary hut). Under heavy fire from a now fully alert enemy, C and D Companies pushed forward. As they neared their final objective they encountered a four-gun battery of enemy artillery blocking them. One of C Company's platoons launched a fierce bayonet charge, the troops leaping into the gun pits and taking all the enemy prisoner. 26th Brigade Group now had all their objectives in hand, bar one, Tel el Eisa to the south across the railway line. This was due to the earlier delays in bringing forward the vehicles and heavy equipment. So far their casualties so far had been amazingly light.
Holding the coastal salient: 10-16 July
The area they had captured offered little or no cover. In such a generally flat expanse, ridges a mere twenty or thirty metres above sea level give commanding vantage points to their occupants. The height advantage is so slight that one can scarcely appreciate it until actually upon the feature. 26th Brigade Group began the difficult task of digging in while reinforcements of artillery, anti-tank guns and machine guns were quickly brought in. Now would come the inevitable response--an all out counterattack for this vital ground.
For the Germans and Italians, the situation had rapidly become critical. Rommel, still miles to the south realised that something big was up.
Presently came the alarming news that the enemy had attacked from the Alamein position and overrun the Sabratha Division ... there was a serious danger that they would break through and destroy our supplies ... the attack from Qaret el Abd [Bab el Qattara] had to be cancelled ... I was compelled to order every last German soldier out of his tent or rest camp up to the front ... the situation was beginning to take on crisis proportions. (13)
After the Sabratha Division was put to flight, von Mellenthin had hastily organised the headquarters staff and some members of the 328th Infantry Regiment and prevented a complete breakthrough. They got there in the nick of time. Rommel was very concerned over the lost territory and resolved that it must be retaken at once. A penetration in this sector could threaten his entire front.
He rushed some panzer battle groups up from the south to cut the Australians off from the Alamein box and destroy them. His first attempt to do so was spoiled by the overwhelming power of XXX Corps artillery. Apparently well ensconced and supported, the Australians would take some shifting, and Rommel had to deliver a well-coordinated and powerful counterattack.
At 1100, five German tanks attacked 2/48th Battalion, dug in along the railway. The tanks stopped in front of the battalion's positions and raked them with fire. Heavy artillery and Stuka dive-bombers joined in but they stayed put and withstood the onslaught. While the Stuka attacks were not very effective, the artillery was bursting over the men's heads, showering them with fragments. Casualties occurred, as they didn't yet have overhead cover for their slit trenches. One machine gunner, 'Skinny' Anderson was seen holding a shovel over his head as he crouched to answer the call of nature, no doubt hoping for some measure of protection!
At 1430 that afternoon, the Germans again attempted to drive them out. This time there were ten tanks, which managed to get in amongst their positions. The tanks rumbled around the area caving in the slit trenches with their tracks to intimidate the Australians into abandoning their positions. Aptly named machine gunner Morrie Trigger remembered a German tank commander yelling down to him 'Hande Hoch!--Hands Up!' Trigger ignored the command and narrowly escaped death by lying flat at the bottom of his slit trench. (14)
And from another account,
The tank stood over us, looking a tremendous size in the fading light. A German poked his head out of the turret and yelled: "Come out and lift your hands up." ... Mick Riley, who was a really good soldier, yelled back "Shut up you squarehead, I'll get you." Ted whispered to Mick, "Don't tease him, let him go home." We held our fire and the tank moved off. (15)
Sergeant 'Tex' Weston and Corporal 'Spud' Hinson led other men of 2/48th Bn against the tanks. Both were awarded DCMs for knocking out tanks with grenades and capturing their crews. Fortunately, anti-tank guns arrived on the scene and knocked out one particularly troublesome tank. The crew baled out and made a run for it. Sergeant Gus Longhurst, a big rugby forward, picked up a Vickers heavy machine gun and chased after them. A burst of fire convinced them to surrender.
2/48th Bn was attacked six times by tanks that afternoon. Morshead had taught his men in Tobruk the previous year, how to handle this sort of situation. They learned that if enemy tanks broke through their positions, they should not be overly concerned, stay put and concentrate on preventing enemy infantry coming through in support. The artillery and anti-tank guns further back would deal with the tanks. On this occasion, the Australian infantry overdid their job, getting out of their holes not to ran, but to have a crack at the tanks themselves.
At 1700 Rommel's counterattack shifted its focus to Trig 33 where 2/24th Bn was dug in. Approaching from the west were eighteen Italian tanks. These soon ran into difficulties however, hampered by soft ground and good shooting from the anti-tank gunners. Fourteen tanks were knocked out. Later, nine more approached from the south but were also repulsed. During this action, Bombardier J T McMahon bravely placed his gun in the open to engage them. He and his crew were all wounded, but they still knocked out two tanks. The 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion also played their part here, spraying the tanks with bullets, forcing them to close down their vision slits and preventing the commanders from standing in their turrets to obtain a better view.
Soon after dark, a German battle group under Hauptmann Kirsten made the day's final attempt on 2/48th Battalion's positions near the railway station, and again broke through the forward defences. Anticipating the likelihood of a German breakthrough, the battalion was ready to respond. The reserve companies immediately launched a counterattack from north of the railway.
From the diary of Corporal Tom Derrick,
We were to move forward in one long extended line, cross the railway line without a sound and on a shot from the OC we were to open up with everything and continue to advance firing as we went and calling out "Come on Australianoes." ... from the din of the Light Machine Guns, Tommy guns, rifles and grenades, also the blood curdling cries of advancing men, the enemy must have thought there were thousands and I think the Australianoes business helped a lot. (16)
This counterattack routed the Germans and restored the battalion's positions. It was the final act of a long, but very successful day for the Australians.
An intelligence coup: the capture of NFAK 621
On top of the Australian's capture of the coastal ridge came another unexpected, yet exceptionally important bonus. As 2/24th Bn advanced along the coastal strip they collided with a German unit they were not expecting to meet. Thankfully it was not a heavily armed combat unit, but one that was jokingly referred to as 'the Circus' on account of their strange assortment of tents, trucks and equipment. (17) They were in fact Rommel's most valuable intelligence asset, the signals intercept unit Nachrichten Fern Aufklarung Kompanie 621 (NFAK 621). The unit included a team of highly skilled wireless operators and English language specialists who, unknown to the Allies at the time, had been very successful intercepting Allied signals.
Unfortunately for them, their commander Hauptmann Alfred Seebohm had recently been criticised for hanging back too far from the fighting. Seebohm's response was to move his unit well forward, right in behind the front line. They had set up camp behind the Sabratha Division's forward defences in the sand dunes by the sea.
The speed and surprise of the Australian attack caught the unit completely by surprise. NFAK 621 put up fierce resistance for over an hour while frantically trying to destroy documents, but was soon overrun. Most of the unit were either killed or captured, along with much equipment and documents. Very few escaped, and Seebohm died of his wounds some days later.
Interrogation of the prisoners and examination of their documents revealed the extent of NFAK 621's eavesdropping. Rommel was being fed all manner of detailed intelligence on the Eighth Army. This of course led to a thorough tightening up of Allied signals security as well as counterintelligence measures that put an end to the German 'Kondor Mission' spy ring in Egypt, and possibly the unwitting security leak coming from the US Military Attache in Cairo. (18)
The capture of NFAK 621 has on at least one occasion been portrayed as a planned, top secret assignment and the real purpose behind the Australian attack. (19) Nowhere however, is there evidence that this was the case. The main objective of the attack was to seize and hold the key high ground. NFAK 621 had simply been unwise to position themselves behind such an unreliable unit as Sabratha, and unlucky that they had been in the path of 2/24th's advance. Rommel when told of the unit's loss was furious--he had suddenly lost his best source of intelligence. As one author put it, this was 'quite the most important intelligence coup of the entire North African campaign.' (20)
Next morning, 2/24th Battalion supported by part of the 44th Royal Tank Regiment seized the eastern end of Tel el Eisa and by midday had taken the whole feature and 500 more prisoners. This caused Rommel to commit almost every piece of artillery he had to this sector. So began the pounding of Tel el Eisa. All next day, the whole salient was shelled relentlessly. Then around 1800 while it was still light, there were signs that a big counterattack was coming. Out to the west of Trig 33, men of the German 104th Motorised Infantry Regiment were seen coming on in waves, over 2000 strong.
Corporal Vic Knight quickly moved his section of Vickers machine guns into position. Here, they poured fire into the advancing ranks and with the artillery gradually cut the attack to ribbons. Knight stood in full view of the enemy directing his section's fire, while Lance Corporal Ron Allenden yelled to his infantry mates, 'Stay in your holes! Keep your bloody heads down!' Knight was awarded the DCM for his work that day.
The machine guns fired 80,000 rounds that evening, the men having to urinate on the barrels to cool them off. The Field Regiments had also been working overtime, one having fired 9000 rounds, the muzzles of their 25 pounders glowing red hot as darkness descended. The carnage wrought upon the Germans was awful.
Up and down the line of advance the guns played, tossing bodies and bits of bodies in all directions. Even to the hardened defenders it was a sickening sight, and at the height of the battle men found time to feel sympathy for a courageous enemy. (21)
The German infantry were certainly courageous in their attack, however for their commanders to launch such an attack while it was still light over such open ground, knowing the fire they would be subjected to, was surely stupid and wasteful. An Australian patrol early next morning counted around 600 Germans dead on the field.
On the 13th Rommel again shifted his point of attack, this time angled straight in at the Alamein box, to bypass the Australian salient. Tanks of the 21st Panzer Diviision were seen forming up for the attack and again every piece of Allied artillery in the area came down upon them. The attack broke up before they even got close. Next day, Rommel sent the 21st Panzer in again, this time directed at Tel el Eisa. In the afternoon, an air attack went in, then infantry supported by tanks. The attack was poorly coordinated though, coming too long after the air attack had finished. Fighting was intense, but the defenders managed to hold them off for some hours until panzers broke into the Australian positions and once more began caving in the slit trenches. One memorable sight was that of Private Allan Dwyer standing fully exposed, digging out his mates who had been buried in their hole. Despite their resistance, the Australians were overwhelmed and forced to abandon the position.
Another dangerous situation developed that night when more German tanks supported by infantry managed to break through, the tanks crossing the railway and pushing on towards Pt 26.
The artillery engaged them, the range dropping as the tanks came closer and closer. The artillery inside the salient was actually ordered to prepare to withdraw, but fortunately the tanks were soon forced back. As they retreated, concealed anti-tank guns ambushed them. Gunner Spittle destroyed three with as many rounds before he was killed. Sergeant Muffett and Warrant Officer Digby were also busy, destroying eight more tanks.
From a German account of this action,
To the railway embankment, all went well, then all hell broke loose. Anti-tank fire from front, right and left. Up we get then, our one hundred men storm the enemy whose positions are recognisable only by the flash of their firing. They are damned close! In the fine, brown sand it is difficult to press forward. The panzers veer left and right. Again we lay alone, in a hedgehog formation--heavy infantry and artillery fire comes down. Our nerves are worn out ... (22)
Rommel wrote later that evening,
... our units fought their way forward ... as far as the area between the road and the railway, where the attack came to a halt. Fierce fighting followed with the Australians, whom we knew only too well from the time of the Tobruk siege, and lasted well into the night. (23)
Rommel intended to continue the attack on the morning of the 15th, but that night Auchinleck launched an attack on Ruweisat Ridge, several miles to the south and penetrated the Italian XX Corps. This relieved a lot of pressure on the Australian sector as part of the 21st Panzer. Division was shifted to meet this threat. The New Zealanders had a tough day's fighting on Ruweisat Ridge. They took their objectives on the ridge but lacking tank support, became cut off. They sent the codeword for the capture of their objective--'Faith'. But events that followed would see their faith shaken. Help did not come for the Kiwis, and their day ended in catastrophe, suffering 1405 casualties. As testament to their stubborn resistance, Victoria Crosses were awarded to Sergeant Keith Elliot and Captain Charles Upham (his second VC). Wounded, Upham was captured, and was later imprisoned in Colditz Castle, Germany.
Despite his concerns further south, Rommel was still determined to destroy the Australian salient. Four separate attacks by tanks and infantry were directed at Trig 33. Again the defenders repulsed them destroying 10 tanks and causing heaving casualties upon the German infantry. Early next day, 2/23rd Bn retook Tel el Eisa in a well carried out operation that yielded another six hundred prisoners, mostly Italian. Yet again, they were shelled there so heavily that it had to be abandoned soon after. Once, when another soldier asked Corporal Vic Knight which was the 'Hill of Jesus', he replied 'See that one they're blowing Christ out of? That's the Hill of Jesus ...' (24)
The 26th Brigade Group had shown great skill and determination in capturing and holding this important salient over those first seven days. While the DAF, British tanks and Corps artillery were of invaluable support, the tenacity of the men in the front lines ensured the position would not fall. Rommel threw all he possibly could at them for a week. They were constantly pounded by artillery and attacked, even having the heart of the salient penetrated, but they held on. Only first class troops could have stood that sort of ordeal.
Keeping the pressure on
In the early hours of 17 July, 24th Brigade attacked in order to expand the salient. 2/32nd Bn drove west for Trig 22 on Makh Khad Ridge and took it by 0845 after heavy fighting. Meanwhile, 2/43rd Bn pushed south for Miteiriya (Ruin) Ridge. They reached it by 0700, however were driven off by strong counterattacks. The Brigade then brought up 2/28th Bn to consolidate about Makh Khad, with 2/7th Field Company engineers sowing a defensive minefield in front of them. Despite their mixed success, 24th Brigade had inflicted serious casualties on the enemy, taking hundreds more prisoners mostly from the Trieste and Trento Divisions. Significantly, they had also forced Rommel to send much of his strength to meet them, which spoiled his plans to exploit the victory at Ruweisat two days before. Delivering another telling blow the DAF compounded Rommel's problems by destroying 2200 tons of ammunition and 50,000 gallons of fuel back at Mersa Matruh. He recalled the 'round the clock bombing' by Allied aircraft as a constant drain on his strength. During July the RAF/DAF flew close to 15,400 sorties in the Middle East Theatre. Auchinleck later praised their efforts stating 'I am certain that, had it not been for their devoted and exceptional efforts, we should not have been able to stop the enemy on the El Alamein position ...' (25)
Rommel was now becoming exasperated and perhaps showed signs of losing heart. He wrote to his wife later that day,
Dearest Lu, Things are going downright badly for me at the moment, at any rate, in the military sense. The enemy is using his superiority, especially in infantry, to destroy the Italian formations one by one, and the German formations are much too weak to stand alone. It's enough to make one weep. (26)
Auchinleck considered regrouping before resuming his attacks at the end of the month, but now sensing the enemy were close to cracking, decided to launch another big push straight away. This time he would attack simultaneously along Ruweisat Ridge and from the Australian salient. But another four days would pass before the attack was launched and even then it suffered from hasty preparation.
On the night of the 21st, XIII Corps attacked along Ruweisat Ridge with two newly arrived units, the Indian 161st Brigade supported by 23rd Armoured Brigade, while the New Zealanders were to thrust up from the south. Sadly this second battle for Ruweisat was a repeat run of the disaster on the 15th. Strong enemy resistance and confusion in the dark did not prevent the infantry reaching their objective, however by first light they were in bad shape, lacking support and being heavily counterattacked. A headlong charge by 23rd Armoured Brigade did manage to push through but lost many tanks straying into the dense minefields and soon found itself trapped in a killing ground. Anti-tank guns and panzers shot them to pieces and this new brigade was practically wiped out. A more experienced unit would not have attempted such a bold and reckless drive. It proved at an unacceptable cost, that Allied tanks could not hope to succeed in that fashion against the more powerful German tanks and anti-tank guns. In total, XIII Corps lost 132 tanks. For the New Zealand infantry it was a terrible case of deja vu as they were again left badly exposed, suffering another 900 casualties. As the British Official History states, 'The plan of the attack conducted had some merit, however some critical faults. Firstly, two key tasks were given to inexperienced units, and secondly, insufficient time was taken to study the details of the plan ... they saw the wood ahead, but lost sight of the many nearby trees.' (27)
The XXX Corps part of the attack was to be carried out by the Australian 26th and 24th Brigades, and was ambitious in its scope. 24th Brigade was to again thrust south onto Miteiriya Ridge, while 26th Brigade was to push well out to the west and capture Ring Contour 25, K109 and all of Tel el Eisa. Morshead told his Corps Commander that he thought the task given his division was not only too great, but would also leave them dangerously vulnerable. 26th Brigade had to seize these objectives while still holding the ground they now occupied. It not only meant that this weakened the force available for the attack, but also they would be stretched very thin in holding their new gains. Nevertheless, the attack was ordered to proceed.
Before dawn on the 22nd, elements of 2/24th Bn pushed out towards Ring Contour 25, but were met by withering artillery and machine gun fire from the outset. They reached their objective but had taken heavy casualties and were too weak to hold it. Shortly afterwards, 2/23rd made for Kilo 109 and East Pt 24 of Tel el Eisa and took them despite heavy fire. Again, despite strong artillery support, this battalion also found itself pinned down on its objectives and taking casualties. The next battalion to come into play was 2/48th, which had to sweep around the left flank of 2/23rd and capture West Pt 24 of Tel el Eisa. Once more heavy fire met this battalion, forcing them to ground short of their objective. They were pinned down and badly exposed. At this point, Private Stan Gurney sprang to his feet and charged the enemy. He attacked two machine gun posts using grenades and bayonet, killing all occupants save one, whom he sent back as a prisoner. Another Australian soldier had lent support in silencing the second post. Charging a third post, Gurney was blown off his feet by grenades, but leapt up again and into the enemy post where he was seen bayoneting the occupants. For his bravery in this action he would be awarded the Victoria Cross. His body was found later among the German positions.
Despite their tenacity withstanding hours under heavy fire, 26th Brigade could not hold any of its objectives. Attempts to assist them with Bren carriers and tanks failed, and the survivors made their way back throughout the day and started digging in. The only positive was that the Germans had been forced to abandon both points of Tel el Eisa and would never again occupy it. 2/23rd Bn went back onto East 24 the next morning while West 24, being too 'hot' for either side, remained empty.
Further south, 24th Brigade's attack had also failed. Pushing forward to seize Trig 22 on Makh Khad Ridge, infantry of 2/32nd and 2/43rd Bns had been met by withering fire and stopped cold. Later in the evening 2/28th Bn and supporting British tanks tried to force the objective, but poor coordination between infantry and armour and a bad mistake in map reading saw this attempt also fail. As one soldier of the 2/28th later said, it was 'a balls-up altogether.' (28)
Auchinleck's attacks had again been frustrated and both Corps had suffered heavy casualties. He had attacked Rommel not where he was weakest, but where he was strongest, and again coordination of armour and infantry had been lacking. Writing of the battle, Auchinleck pondered that his armour 'though gallant enough, lost control and direction', while the infantry 'made some avoidable mistakes.' 'Perhaps I asked too much of them ...' (29) But he was soon to ask for more.
Ruin Ridge: 26-28 July
Auchinleck's final attempt to break the enemy began on 26 July. His Special Order of the Day read:
To all ranks EIGHTH ARMY from C-in-C. You have done well. You have turned a retreat into a firm stand and stopped the enemy on the threshold of EGYPT. You have done more. You have wrenched the initiative from him by sheer guts and hard fighting and put HIM on the defensive in these last weeks. He has lost heavily and is short of men, ammunition, petrol and other things. He is trying desperately to bring these over to AFRICA but the Navy and the Air Force are after his ships. You have done well but I ask you for more. We must not slacken. If we can stick it we will break him. STICK TO IT. (30)
The objective of the next attack was to break through between Miteiriya and Deir el Dhib. The South Africans were to make a gap through the minefields for the British 69th Brigade to come through driving west. The Australian 24th Brigade was to attack south onto Miteiriya (Ruin) Ridge, then drive northwest along it. They would also rely on making gaps in the dense minefields. The spearhead of their attack would be made by 2/28th Bn. Tanks of the British 1st Armoured Division were to then exploit further westwards.
Beginning at midnight on 26 July, 2/28th Bn advanced and after making a small gap in the minefield were on Ruin Ridge an hour later. Casualties had been moderate, but several supporting Bren carriers had been destroyed and were burning brightly, blocking the gap in the minefield. 2/28th Bn commander Lt Colonel McCarter sent the message, 'We are here'. The battalion dug in as best it could and waited ...
69th Brigade, advancing at 0200 met heavy resistance and soon their attack broke down in confusion. German counterattacks caught them in this state and the best part of the brigade was completely overrun. Once more armoured support did not materialise in time, the tank commander deeming the gaps in the minefield insufficient. Hours ticked by.
2/28th Bn had beaten elements of the German 90th Light Division off the ridge and inflicted serious casualties. Rommel again organised his trademark rapid counterstroke. Strong battle groups supported by tanks now closed in on the 2/28th as the early morning wore on. Repeated calls were sent for more ammunition before their radio went dead. The sounds of heavy fighting from the ridge intensified. At 0905 they finally got their damaged radio going and called Brigade Headquarters. The first words heard there were 'We are in trouble.' Over the next hour the signallers at brigade recorded the battalion's desperate plight,
0914 from 2/28th: We need help now. We need armour ... Rock it in! [The artillery stepped up supporting fire, pausing once thinking they were firing on British tanks before resuming. Minor corrections were made as requested] 0943 from 2/28th: There are tanks all around us ... From Brigade: Who's are they? From 2/28th: They are Jerries ... You'd better hurry, Rock artillery in! 0949 from Brigade: Our Witchcraft [code for tanks] with you soon. Stick it Mac! From 2/28th: We are one third strength [British armour tried to get through to them but were beaten back, losing 22 tanks.] 0952 from Brigade: Enclosing you in an artillery box
1003 from 2/28th: We have got to give in. (31)
With their lines of communication and retreat completely cut, 2/28th Bn were then squeezed on three sides by strong German panzer and infantry groups until they were overrun. The battalion was virtually wiped out, losing 65 killed and 489 missing, most of whom were wounded and taken prisoner. The British 69th Brigade losses had been slightly heavier, totalling about 600. It was a tragic end to a month that had such encouraging successes in its first half, yet demoralising failures with heavy loss in its second.
The aftermath of July
'So ended the great campaign of the summer ...' wrote Rommel, (32) for now both sides were exhausted, as they had been at the end of June. Eighth Army was spent and needed time to recover and replenish. Rommel's army was so weakened by the past two months' fighting that they could not possibly launch a renewal of their offensive. They had barely held on. Eighth Army held the upper hand slightly, but by now they had lost many tanks and most infantry formations were seriously depleted. Conceding defender's advantage to Rommel, Auchinleck was right to now call a halt to proceedings. Now the race to reinforce and resupply would begin in earnest, a battle fought at sea and in the skies.
As stated, the importance of the July battles is often overshadowed by the second battle that began in October. But a few authors have recognised a greater importance in the July battles, as pointed out by Charles Messenger in his book The unknown Alamein. (33) While he admits that these include biographers and 'defenders' of Auchinleck, which is hardly surprising, there are others. Australian Official Historian Barton Maughan described the successful attack on 10 July as 'the turning point of the war in North Africa' (34), while more recent authors Mark Johnston and Peter Stanley suggest that the July fighting 'laid the foundations of the October victory' and that its subsequent 'obscurity is undeserved.' (35) In addition, British Official Historian I.S.O. Playfair wrote: 'In retrospect the vital importance of the July fighting stands out clearly, and to General Auchinleck belongs the credit for turning retreat into counterattack.' (36) To further stress the importance of the timing of the battle, we can look to none other than Winston Churchill who reflected that in July 1942
I was politically at my weakest and without a gleam of military success ... (37)
From the achievements of the Eighth Army during this period, despite the reverses of the latter half of the month, perhaps Churchill should have noticed there was in fact a gleam of military success, and signs of a more shining victory on the near horizon. In other theatres there would be hope as well. In the next few months the Allies would follow up their important victory at Midway with success in Papua and Guadalcanal, while in Russia, the Germans descended into disaster at Stalingrad.
In early August, Auchinleck was reassigned to command in Persia and Iraq, and Lt General Bernard Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army. Churchill had finally lost patience when Auchinleck told him that he could not resume the offensive until mid September. Ironically Montgomery would get away with waiting until the end of October to launch his offensive. By that time, the balance of power had swung so much in favour of the Allies that victory was virtually assured.
The Australians of 9th Division had suffered 2700 casualties (600 dead) in July, a cost that would be matched and slightly exceeded in October/November. By the end of it, close to 6000 would be casualties (about 1200 dead or missing). That represented a full third of the division's strength, a casualty and death rate akin to the Western Front of twenty five years before.
9th Division continued to hold the coastal sector around Tel el Eisa. It would be from this key position that they would launch their part of the attack in October. As in July, they would play a prominent and decisive role. Rommel's last attempt to break through the Alamein line at Alam Halfa on 30/31 August was defeated easily. On 23 October, the Second Battle of El Alamein opened, in which ultimately the Allies would deliver a crushing defeat to Rommel's Panzerarmee that would soon see it ejected from Africa altogether. The pendulum had now swung irreversibly in favour of the Allies.
(1) This article was the result of research undertaken for a talk the author presented at Tel el Eisa, as part of a joint Australian War Memorial/Imperial War Museum battlefield tour of Crete and Egypt in September 2002
(2) Letter from Private David Henry Frazer (2/24 Bn) dated 23 July 1942, Australian War Memorial, Private Record PRO 1943.
(3) First Alamein (1-27 July), Alam Halfa (30-31 August) & Second Alamein (23 Oct-6 Nov).
(4) Rommel, Erwin 1953, The Rommel Papers: edited by B H Liddell Hart, Collins, London, p. 237
(5) Playfair, I S O 1960, British Official History, The Mediterranean and Middle East, Vol III, HMSO, London, p. 333
(6) Private papers of Gunner J P Stokes (2/7 Field Regt), Australian War Memorial, MSS1120. This attitude among the Egyptian population was not however universal.
(7) The Rommel papers, p. 242-244
(8) Mellenthin, F W von 1955, Panzer battles, p. 128
(9) Panzer battles, pp 163-164.
(10) Australian War Memorial, AWM54, 526/4/22, XXX Corps Operation Order #61 (7 July)
(11) The Rommel papers, p 252.
(12) 2/48 Bn War Diary, Australian War Memorial, AWM 52, 8/3/36
(13) The Rommel Papers, pp 252-253
(14) Oakes, Bill 1980, Muzzle blast: six years of war with the 2/2 Australian Machine Gun Battalion, AIF, 2/2 Bn Assn., Sydney, p 97.
(15) Glenn, John 1960, Tobruk to Tarakan, Rigby, Adelaide, p 110.
(16) Corporal Tom Derrick had already earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal earlier in the day during the attack on Pt 26. He went on to earn the Victoria Cross for his actions at Sattelberg, New Guinea in 1943 and promotion to Lieutenant. Sadly, he died in the 2/48th Battalion's last battle on Tarakan Island, Borneo in May 1945. Copies of his diaries are held at the Australian War Memorial, Private Record PR82/190.
(17) Behrendt, Hans-Otto 1985, Rommel's intelligence in the desert campaign, 1941-1943, Kimber, London p 170
(18) It is not clear whether or not the capture of NFAK 621 led to stopping the US leak. Some say 'The Good Source' as it was called by the Germans was stopped in late June, others say August.
(19) Bungay, Stephen 2002, Alamein, p 100.
(20) Brown, Anthony Cave 1975, Bodyguard of lies, Harper & Row, New York, p. 104. For further reading see Baillieu, Everard 1985, Both sides of the hill and Behrendt, Hans-Otto 1985, Rommel's intelligence in the Desert Campaign 1941-1943
(21) Share, Pat (ed) 1978, Mud and blood: Albury's own, 2/23rd Australian Infantry Battalion, Heritage, Frankston, Vic., pp 175-176.
(22) Aberger, Heinz-Dietrich et al 1972, Nut ein Bataillon, (German 8th Machine Gun Bn, 21st Panzer Division), p 192.
(23) The Rommel papers, pp 255-256.
(24) From a 1989 interview with Cpl Vic Knight (2/2nd MG Bn), Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, AWM, S00555
(25) The Mediterranean and Middle East, Vol III, HMSO, London, p. 335
(26) The Rommel papers, p 257.
(27) The Mediterranean and Middle East, Vol III, p. 354
(28) Johnston, Mark & Stanley, Peter 2002, Alamein: the Australian story, Oxford, Melbourne, p 94. From an interview with Jack Hawkes, 2/28th Bn, (1989), Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, AWM, SOO527.
(29) Ibid., p 97.
(30) Maughan, Barton 1966, Australia in the war of 1939-1945, Vol 111. Tobruk and El Alamein, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, p 590.
(31) Australian War Memorial Official Record, AWM54, 526/6/5, HQ 9th Division--Report on operations--24th Brigade--3 to 29 July and to 6 November 1942
(32) The Rommel papers, p 260.
(33) Messenger, Charles 1982, The unknown Alamein, Ian Allen Ltd, Shepperton, Surrey, p 3. Messenger himself considers the battles in July to be 'undoubtedly the turning point of the desert war' (p 58)
(34) Baillieu, Everard 1985, Both sides of the hill, 2/24 Battalion Assn, Burwood, Vic., p ix (introduction by Barton Maughan)
(35) Johnston, Mark & Stanley, Peter 2002, Alamein: the Australian story, pp 115-116.
(36) The Mediterranean and Middle East, Vol III, P 377
(37) Churchill, Sir Winston S. 1951, The Second World War, vol. IV, Cassell, London, p. 390
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2004|
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