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World War Two: The Battle of El Alamein

By Professor Richard Holmes
Advance and retreat

Photograph showing two British troops lying on the ground aiming machine guns (1942)
British troops in action in 1942 

There was even talk of an Axis offensive through Egypt linking up with a German drive down from Russia. A German mountain infantryman declared that the objective of the German thrust in south Russia in mid-1942 was simple: 'Down the Caucasus, round the corner, slice the British through the rear, and say to Rommel, "Hello, General, here we are!" '

Even if this was a strategic improbability, the psychological impact of the British loss of Egypt would have been enormous. Lastly, Hitler certainly did not regard North Africa as a sideshow, and his decision to send massive reinforcements to the theatre after El Alamein would eventually result in Axis losses in North Africa being greater than they were at Stalingrad.

And to the assertion that Montgomery, with numbers of men and equipment on his side, was bound to win at El Alamein, I respond that there were previous occasions when the British should have won the desert war but had failed to do so.

Sometimes politicians were to blame. In 1941, after a British offensive had bundled the Italians from the Egyptian frontier deep into Libya, the troops that might have clinched victory were diverted to Greece at Churchill's behest.

However, sometimes the responsibility lay with the generals. In the Gazala battles of mid-1942 the British time and time again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Small wonder that the Army was indeed, as Churchill described it, 'brave but baffled'.

So in the overall scheme of things, El Alamein mattered, and among the strengths of that prickly and opinionated general, Bernard Montgomery, was a determination to resist political pressure to attack before he was ready. His insistence on fighting a well-prepared 'teed up' battle was properly understood by his soldiers.

'Lastly, Hitler certainly did not regard North Africa as a sideshow ...'

Even today the road that runs along the very edge of North Africa, with the Mediterranean on the one hand and the desert on the other, is not exactly a super-highway. During World War Two, it was a good deal worse. But it was the umbilical cord that linked the armies that fought for Egypt and Libya with their main logistic bases, and the tide of war ebbed and flowed along it.

In 1940 the Italians advanced from Libya and crossed the frontier of British-protected Egypt, where they halted and dug in. There were attacked by Major General Richard O'Connor's Western Desert Force which drove them back to El Agheila, half way to Tripoli.

However, with the British weakened by the diversion of troops to Greece, in March 1941 the newly-arrived Rommel counter-attacked and recaptured much of the lost territory, though the important port of Tobruk, garrisoned by Australians, held out. In May a limited British offensive, codenamed Brevity, proved disappointing, and the large-scale Battleaxe, following month, saw the loss of 220 British tanks to only 25 German.

In July 1941 Sir Archibald Wavell, C-in-C Middle East, was replaced by General Sir Claude Auchinleck, and in November, the 8th Army at last mounted a successful offensive, Operation Crusader, which relieved Tobruk and pushed on to El Agheila.

But Rommel was not slow in striking back, first in an offensive which took him to line just west of Tobruk and then, in a complex, swirling action between Gazala and the desert outpost of Bir Hacheim, in a battle which eventually saw 8th Army in full retreat.

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