Heaven. On the wall of the el-Alamein railway station this Australian soldier writes the word "heaven", which means that the battle of el-Alamein was the Heaven as compared to what the soldiers had gone through during the fights in the desert.



Before the dawn on 31 August 1942 Erwin Rommel struck against the British positions around el-Alamein - a town in close approaches to Alexandria. The German command tried to develop recent successes, and through the final conquest of Egypt deprive the Allies of the last stronghold in that part of the world, the last bridgehead in the war for the Mediterranean. The country on the Nile constituted a very important materiel subsidiary and area of troops' concentration. Occupation of Egypt would open the gates to the Middle East before the invaders. Then the Germans could easily convince Turkey, menaced from the Balkans and from Syria, to abandon her neutrality and turn against the Allies. The only order, which could be issued at el-Alamein was therefore short: "Not a single step back." Because any step back could mean a defeat of unpredictable consequences.

The commander-in-chief of the Allied forces in the Middle East was at that time Gen. Harold Alexander, who just arrived from Burma and replaced Gen. Claude Auchinleck; whereas the command of the 8th Army fighting in the desert was entrusted to Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery - thereto the commander of one of the divisions prepared in Great Britain to repulse German invasion. The defence positions were conveniently situated along the 60km-long front between the sea and Qattara Depression. Unusual geological conditions rendered the use of vehicles in the depression impossible and a way around it was completely out of question - the Qattara Depression stretches for miles and miles into the wildest desert. It falls down to 70m below the sea level and is filled with quicksand and salt bogs. In those conditions the British did not have the problem of flanks, for they were well defended by the nature.

Nevertheless, some Rommel's tanks managed to break through mine-fields. The attack was made by the Panzergruppe Afrika comprised of two armoured and one motorized divisions, as well as the Italian XX Corps comprised of two armoured divisions. So, those were substantial forces. Montgomery could throw against them only two armoured divisions and an armoured brigade. But the excellent organization of the anti-tank defence did not let the Axis forces to encircle the main, northern, grouping. In face of mounting losses and breakdown of the Italian troops on 3 September Rommel ordered a withdrawal. His retreat to the initial positions was accompanied by fierce counter-attacks of the British. On 7 September the situation was in general restored to the state prior to 31 August. Yet the hitlerite command did not know, that the 8th Army had been intensively strengthened; reinforcements for it had literally poured.

Meanwhile on the supply route from Italy to Rommel's forces in Africa there was a little island of Malta. Its fast defence was not broken by almost 2,000 air raids carried out till the autumn 1942. The lone island stuck like a splinter in the system of the Italo-German communications between Europe and North Africa. As they strove to achieve the final success in Egypt, the Germans abandoned plans to seize Malta in a major amphibious operation and diverted all the forces to the desert theatre. It was their grave mistake. And the Italian navy was not able to provide efficient protection to the ships carrying supplies to the Axis African forces, although Benito Mussolini gave solemn assurances in this matter to Rommel, who visited Rome on the way to Berlin.

It is worth to mention that the Regia Marina was not successful in the fights with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. On 19 July 1940 off the Crete a British squadron sank the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni. On 12 October the same year three Italian ships were lost off Malta. On 11 November British torpedo planes in a night attack literally decimated the Italian naval forces deployed in Taranto; seriously damaged were three battleships, of which one never returned to active service, and two cruisers. Also there were blown up fuel dumps and the base of hydroplanes was destroyed. On 27 November a strong British convoy sailing from Gibraltar to Alexandria repelled without casualties persistent attacks of a strong Italian squadron; heavy damages were inflicted to the battleship Vittorio Veneto, a cruiser and a destroyer. On 9 February 1941 a strong British squadron from Gibraltar undetected approached Genoa, bombarded the city and demolished the port. On 27-29 March 1941 off the Cape Matapan was fought a battle in defence of a British convoy with supplies for Greece. The Italian navy lost three cruisers and one destroyer; the British achieved this success thanks to the radar used for the first time in the sea warfare. Simultaneously with the land operations in Africa there were completely destroyed Italian naval forces in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Survived only one gunboat, which managed to get as far as to Japan.

Of course the British and the Greeks also lost some ships, especially in their light forces, during the evacuation of Crete but that did not improve the combat spirit of the Italian navy. Just like it could not improve after seizure of the ships of the weak and tiny Yugoslav navy. In 1942, the critical year of the defeats suffered on every war theatre, the convoys going on the route Gibraltar - Malta - Egypt suffered heavy losses, but the communication along that route had never been severed. The Italian admiralty simply could not exploit such grave turns in the strategic situation.

At the end of 1941 in the Mediterranean appeared first German submarines. They sank the aircraft carrier Ark Royal going to Singapore and the battleship Barham. Also an attack of Italian so-called live torpedoes in Alexandria brought substantial damages to two British battleships. But those actions could not stop the energetic British offensive against the convoys sailing between Italy to Africa. On 8 November 1941 the British sank an entire Italian convoy of seven ships. On 22 March 1942 in the Gulf of Sidra a squadron of British light cruisers in another battle in defence of another convoy with supplies for Malta repelled the Italian squadron comprised of a battleship and heavy and light cruisers. In the summer convoys to Malta suffered heavy losses but nevertheless the island's supplies were always satisfactory, and the Italian navy did not dare to challenge the enemy openly. No doubt Italian admirals got in those years a serious inferiority complex.

In such circumstances Rommel, already promoted to a Field Marshal, could not rely on Mussolini's promises. After all he could not rely even on his own leadership. He understood the significance of taking Egypt better than Adolf Hitler and his aides. In Berlin they promised him among others to send in a regiment of the newest tanks Pz.Kpfw.T-VI Tiger and a brigade of the newest six-barrelled mortars Nebelwerfer, but he realised that they would not arrive in time. After all even he himself was not to come back in time. The battle pivotal for the African campaign started without him. During his absence in command was Gen. Georg von Stumme.

Meanwhile the British in September and October had substantially strengthened their forces. Eventually on the Germano-Italian side had to fight eight infantry and four armoured divisions, altogether about 100,000 men and 600 tanks - half of that Italian. On the British side were concentrated three corps - X, XIII and XXX - altogether seven infantry divisions, three armoured divisions and seven armoured brigades. They numbered 150,000 men and over 1,000 tanks. Moreover Montgomery had finally built up superiority in the air forces. In 1937 Italy was yet the world's first air power; in 1942 once formidable Italian machines became obsolete junks, which used to be shot down like ducks. On 9 October British air force launched massive bombings of the enemy rears. The ports, airfields and supply bases in Italy were bombed from the airfields located in Great Britain, and Rommel's bases, roads and transports were bombed from airfields in Egypt. As many as 700 bombers took part in it; simultaneously the fighters wiped the enemy air forces from the sky.

Contrary to the British traditions, Montgomery personally met his officers and soldiers before the battle, and explained them the goal, sense and significance of the pending contest. He was not a typical English general. He wore the uniform of his own style and did not drink or smoke. He was reputed by saying once to Sir Winston Spencer Churchill: I do not smoke or drink, and I exercise every day, and I am one-hundred percent fit, to which Churchill calmly puffed his cigar, sipped his brandy and replied: I smoke and drink, never exercise, and I am three-hundred percent fit. [Majdalany F. (2003).] However, in spite of his ostentatious abstinence, soldiers of the 8th Army liked their "Monty". They were bound to love him after he led them to the victory.

On 23 October 1942 as many as 900 pieces of artillery opened fire at the Germano-Italian positions near el-Alamein. After the twenty-minutes barrage, exactly at ten o'clock in the evening, the troops of the XIII and XXX Corps went to the battle. Tens of thousands of mines were laid in front of them, so engineers were going in the first lines. For the first time in the African campaign they used the electromagnetic mine detectors - 500 devices. After them followed the infantry; in the battle of el-Alamein Montgomery reversed the common principle that infantry followed the tanks. After all it was said that he trusted infantry more than tanks, and he had such outstanding infantry divisions like the 9th Australian, 4th Indian, 2nd New Zealand or 51st Scottish Highland. By 5:30 next morning they made in the mine-fields two corridors where to the battle went two tank brigades from the X Corps.

London with the utmost anxiousness expected news about the development of the battle of el-Alamein. According to the historian Fred Majdalany,

the man who seemed the least concerned was General Montgomery. For him ten o'clock was not only H-hour for the second battle of Alamein, but his usual bedtime in or out of battle. As soon as he knew the attack was on its way he went to bed. Everything possible had been arranged. There was nothing more he could do. The battle must take its course and he must wake up fresh to meet the problems and decisions of the next day. [Majdalany F. (2003).]

And on the next day the infantry from the XXX Corps was consolidating its positions in the northern sector of the front, where it took its first objective - a range of hills called Miteiriya. The tanks were moving on. Farther to the south the advance of the XIII Corps stalled and another tank brigade was detached to the north to develop the successful advance there. On 25 October Gen. Stumme, while riding with his staff officers in a car to a German light division pressed by the Australians, got under the artillery fire, fell off the car and died of a heart stroke. Years later John Frederic Charles Fuller wrote about him, that he

committed the egregious error of spreading his troops evenly along the whole front, instead of holding it lightly and concentrating his armour well in rear in readiness to counter-attack. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]

Meanwhile Rommel was vacationing in the Alps, in Simmering. Hitler recalled him urgently and ordered him to return to Africa. Rommel arrived there next day with a special plane. He promptly sent his tanks to several counter-attacks, but none of them succeeded. He renewed his efforts on 28 October, but he had to detach substantial armoured forced to aid the light division surrounded by the Australians. It managed to break out of the trap, but on 1 November the XXX Corps, supported by heavy tanks, struck again. In hard fights it overcame last mine-fields. The point of gravity of the battle shifted beyond the lines of the German defence. On 1-3 November two armoured divisions from the Panzergruppe Afrika and two armoured divisions from the British X Corps fought a battle near the hamlet Tel el-Aqqaqir. The Germans lost it entirely and they also lost well-fortified defence positions. On 2 November Rommel in the letter to his wife, to whom he used to write often and frankly, wrote:

Dearest Lu,
Very heavy fighting again, not going well for us. The enemy, with his superior strength, is slowly levering us out of our position. That will mean the end. You can imagine how I feel. Air raid after air raid after air raid. [Rommel E. (1982).]

Shortly before, that skilful tactician and the author of a work on applying principles of the sea warfare in the desert fights gained the nickname "Desert Fox". But now the British air force dominated the battlefield having against itself only weak units of the anti-aircraft artillery. So, on 3 November Rommel ordered the retreat. He left to its fate his right wing, namely the Italians, and forces his whipped Panzergruppe divisions to an exhausting march westward. And thus the "Desert Fox" lost the biggest battle of the African campaign. After all, historians say that the retreat was done skilfully too.

The casualties the Axis forces suffered in the battle of el-Alamein were very heavy. They lost 60,000 killed, wounded, MIA's and taken prisoners, in this at least 35,000 Germans. They also lost over 500 tanks, 400 guns, and of course thousands of vehicles. The British lost about 13,500 dead, wounded and MIA's, as well as over 400 tanks. Majdalany has meticulously counted the percentage of the Allied losses: 58% of them were English and Scots, 22% Australians, 10% New Zealanders, 6% South Africans, and 4% Greeks and French.

On 13 December the British troops from the 8th Army entered again into Tobruk. On 20 December they reached Benghazi. Since then the pace of their pursuit substantially slowed down - it was not until a month later that they took Tripolis. Nevertheless the fates of the war had clearly turned the tables: on the other end of the African continent at that time unfolded more offensive operations, and at the same time on the Volga developed the events, which were bound to bring the most fatal to the Germans battle of the Second World War.