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Alamein Defence

The First Battle of El Alamein was fought during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War, around the town of El Alamein in Egypt from 1–27 July 1942. The battle was fought between the Axis forces (Germany and Italy) of the Panzer Army Africa (also known as the Africa Corps) commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Allied (specifically British Imperial) forces (Britain, British India, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) of the Eighth Army, commanded by General Claude Auchinleck.

Following its defeat at the Battle of Gazala in Eastern Libya in June 1942, the British Eighth Army had retreated east from the Gazala line into north-western Egypt to a more defensible position near El Alamein on the Mediterranean coast. El Alamein was a small railway station on the coast. Some 10 mi (16 km) to the south lay the Ruweisat Ridge, a low stony ridge that gave excellent observation for many miles over the surrounding desert. 20 mi (32 km) to the south of that lay the Qattara Depression, characterised by steep slopes. The British chose to defend the line stretching between the sea and the Qattara Depression, which meant that Rommel could outflank it only by taking a significant detour to the south and crossing the Sahara Desert.

The Eighth Army constructed three defended "boxes" (localities with dug-outs surrounded by minefields and barbed wire); the El Alamein box on the coast, the Bab el Qattara box (20 mi (32 km) from the coast and 8 mi (13 km) south-west of the Ruweisat Ridge), and the Naq Abu Dweis box (on the edge of the Qattara Depression, 34 mi (55 km) from the coast). Most of the "line", however, was open, empty desert.

The Rand Light Infantry, which formed part of the 3 South African Infantry Brigade, under the 1st South African Division, was stationed at the El Alamein Box, where various enemy assaults were successfully held off during the battle.

The Axis forces were exhausted, understrength and supplies remained a problem. Rommel had driven his forces forward ruthlessly, being confident that, provided he struck quickly before Eighth Army had time to settle, his momentum would take him through the Alamein position and he could then advance to the Nile with little further opposition.

Approaching El Alamein, Rommel ordered the German 90th Light, 15th Panzer, and 21st Panzer Divisions to attack between the coast and Deir el Abyad. While the 90th Light was to drive forward before turning north to cut the coast road, the panzers were to swing south into the rear of XIII Corps. In the north, an Italian division was to support the 90th Light by attacking El Alamein, while in the south the Italian XX Corps was to move behind the panzers and eliminate the Qattara box. Rolling forward at 3:00 AM on July 1, the 90th Light advanced too far north and became entangled in the 1st South African Division's (XXX Corps) defences. Their compatriots in the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions were delayed getting started by a sandstorm and soon came under heavy air attack.

Finally advancing, the panzers soon encountered heavy resistance from the 18th Indian Infantry Brigade near Deir el Shein. Mounting a tenacious defense, the Indians held through the day allowing Auchinleck to shift forces to the western end of Ruweisat Ridge. Along the coast, the 90th Light was able to resume their advance but was stopped by South African artillery and forced to halt. On July 2, the 90th Light attempted to renew their advance but to no avail. In an effort to cut the coast road, Rommel directed the panzers to attack east towards Ruweisat Ridge before turning north. Supported by the Desert Air Force, ad hoc British formations succeeded in holding the ridge despite strong German efforts. The next two days saw German and Italian troops unsuccessfully continue their offensive while also turning back a counterattack by the New Zealanders.

With his men exhausted and his panzer strength badly depleted, Rommel elected to end his offensive. Pausing, he hoped to reinforce and resupply before attacking again. Across the lines, Auchinleck's command was bolstered by the arrival of the 9th Australian Division and two Indian Infantry Brigades. Seeking to take the initiative, Auchinleck directed XXX Corps commander Lieutenant General William Ramsden to strike west against Tel el Eisa and Tel el Makh Khad using the 9th Australian and 1st South African Divisions respectively. Supported by British armor, both divisions made their attacks on July 10. In two days of fighting, they succeeded in capturing their objectives and turned back numerous German counterattacks through July 16.

With Germans forces pulled north, Auchinleck commenced Operation Bacon on July 14. This saw the New Zealanders and Indian 5th Infantry Brigade strike the Italian Pavia and Brescia Divisions at Ruweisat Ridge. Attacking, they made gains on the ridge in three days of fighting and turned back substantial counterattacks from elements of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions. As fighting began to quiet, Auchinleck directed the Australians and the 44th Royal Tank Regiment to attack Miteirya Ridge in the north to relieve pressure on Ruweisat. Striking early on July 17, they inflicted heavy losses on the Italian Trento and Trieste Divisions before being forced back by German armor.

Utilizing his short supply lines, Auchinleck was able to build a 2-to-1 advantage in armor. Seeking to utilize this advantage, he planned to renew the fighting at Ruweisat on July 21. While Indian forces were to attack west along the ridge, the New Zealanders were to strike towards the El Mreir depression. Their combined effort was to open a gap through which the 2nd and 23rd Armoured Brigades could strike. Advancing to El Mreir, the New Zealanders were left exposed when their tank support failed to arrive. Counterattacked by German armor, they were overrun. The Indians faired somewhat better in that they captured the western end of the ridge but were unable to take Deir el Shein. Elsewhere, the 23rd Armoured Brigade took heavy losses after becoming mired in a minefield.

To the north, the Australians renewed their efforts around Tel el Eisa and Tel el Makh Khad on July 22. Both objectives fell in heavy fighting. Eager to destroy Rommel, Auchinleck conceived Operation Manhood which called for additional attacks in the north. Reinforcing XXX Corps, he intended for it to break through at Miteirya before proceeding to Deir el Dhib and El Wishka with the goal of cutting Rommel's supply lines. Moving forward on the night of July 26/27, the complex plan, which called for opening several routes through minefields, quickly began to fall apart. Though some gains were made, they were quickly lost to German counterattacks.

Having failed to destroy Rommel, Auchinleck ended offensive operations on July 31 and began digging in and fortifying his position against an expected Axis assault. Though a stalemate, Auchinleck had won an important strategic victory in halting Rommel's advance east towards Alexandria (and then Cairo and ultimately the Suez Canal). The Eighth Army had suffered over 13,000 casualties but had taken 7,000 prisoners and inflicted heavy damage on Axis men and machines

Despite his efforts, Auchinleck was relieved in August and replaced as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Command by General Sir Harold Alexander. Command of Eighth Army ultimately passed to Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery.


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