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In July 1942, General Erwin Rommel and the Italo-German Panzer Armee Afrika, (part of the Deutsches Afrika Korps) were only 113km (70 miles) from Alexandria. The situation was so serious that Winston Churchill made the long journey to Egypt to discover for himself what needed to be done. Churchill decided to make changes to the command structure. General Harold Alexander was placed in charge of British land forces in the Middle East and Bernard Montgomery became commander of the Eighth Army.
On 30th August, 1942, Erwin Rommel attacked at Alam el Halfa but was repulsed by the Eighth Army. Montgomery responded to this attack by ordering his troops to reinforce the defensive line from the coast to the impassable Qattara Depression. Montgomery was now able to make sure that Rommel and the German Army was unable to make any further advances into Egypt.
Over the next six weeks Montgomery began to stockpile vast quantities of weapons and ammunition to make sure that by the time he attacked he possessed overwhelming firepower. By the middle of October the Eighth Army totalled 195,000 men, 1,351 tanks and 1,900 pieces of artillery. This included large numbers of recently delivered Sherman M4 and Grant M3 tanks.
On 23rd October Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot with the largest artillery bombardment since the First World War. The attack came at the worst time for the Deutsches Afrika Korps as Erwin Rommel was on sick leave in Austria. His replacement, General George Stumme, died of a heart-attack the day after the 900 gun bombardment of the German lines. Stume was replaced by General Ritter von Thoma and Adolf Hitler phoned Rommel to order him to return to Egypt immediately.
The Germans defended their positions well and after two days the Eighth Army had made little progress and Bernard Montgomery ordered an end to the attack. When Erwin Rommel returned he launched a counterattack at Kidney Depression (27th October). Montgomery now returned to the offensive and the 9th Australian Division created a salient in the enemy positions.
Winston Churchill was disappointed by the Eighth Army's lack of success and accused Montgomery of fighting a "half-hearted" battle. Montgomery ignored these criticisms and instead made plans for a new offensive, Operation Supercharge.
On 1st November 1942, Montgomery launched an attack on the Deutsches Afrika Korps at Kidney Ridge. After initially resisting the attack, Rommel decided he no longer had the resources to hold his line and on the 3rd November he ordered his troops to withdraw. However, Adolf Hitler overruled his commander and the Germans were forced to stand and fight.
The next day Montgomery ordered his men forward. The Eighth Army broke through the German lines and Erwin Rommel, in danger of being surrounded, was forced to retreat. Those soldiers on foot, including large numbers of Italian soldiers, were unable to move fast enough and were taken prisoner.
For a while it looked like the the British would cut off Rommel's army but a sudden rain storm on 6th November turned the desert into a quagmire and the chasing army was slowed down. Rommel, now with only twenty tanks left, managed to get to Sollum on the Egypt-Libya border.
The British Army recaptured Tobruk on 12th November, 1942. During the El Alamein campaign half of Rommel's 100,000 man army was killed, wounded or taken prisoner. He also lost over 450 tanks and 1,000 guns. The British and Commonwealth forces suffered 13,500 casualties and 500 of their tanks were damaged. However, of these, 350 were repaired and were able to take part in future battles.
Winston Churchill was convinced that the battle of El Alamein marked the turning point in the war and ordered the ringing of church bells all over Britain. As he said later: "Before Alamein we never had a victory, after Alamein we never had a defeat."
(1) In Italy in 1943 Bernard Montgomery commented on the importance of air support during modern battles.
I believe that the first and great principle of war is that you must first win your air battle before you fight your land and sea battle. If you examine the conduct of the campaign from Alamein through Tunisia, Sicily and Italy you will find I have never fought a land battle until the air battle has been won. We never had to bother about the enemy air, because we won the air battle first.
The second great principle is that Army plus Air has to be so knitted that the two together from one entity. If you do that, the resultant military effort will be so great that nothing will be able to stand against it.
The third principle is that the Air Force command. I hold that it is quite wrong for the soldier to want to exercise command over the air striking forces. The handling of an Air Force is a life-study, and therefore the air part must be kept under Air Force command.
The Desert Air Force and the Eighth Army are one. We do not understand the meaning of "army cooperation". When you are one entity you cannot cooperate. If you knit together the power of the Army on the land and the power of the Air in the sky, then nothing will stand against you and you will never lose a battle.
(2) Wilhelm von Thoma fought against Bernard Montgomery in the Desert War. After the war he was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart for his book The Other Side of the Hill (1948)
I thought he (Montgomery) was very cautious, considering his immensely superior strength, but he is the only Field-Marshal in this war who won all his battles. In modem mobile warfare the tactics are not the main thing. The decisive factor is the organization of one's resources to maintain the momentum.
(3) Harold Alexander and Bernard Montgomery were criticized for not being more aggressive after the Allied victory at El Alamein. He defended his actions in his autobiography published in 1961.
At Alamein Rommel was utterly defeated but not annihilated: Alamein was a decisive victory but not a complete one. It is easy to look back after eighteen years and suggest that the Afrika Korps could have been destroyed by a more vigorous exploitation after the breakthrough, but let us remember the realities of the time.
Monty had his first big command. He was new to the desert. He was fighting a great battlefield tactician in Rommel, whose troops were seasoned warriors: he and they had won some remarkable victories; whereas the Eighth Army had only recently been reformed and given the material to take on the Axis at better odds; many of our fresh reinforcements were new to desert conditions; and although our Intelligence was good we couldn't know accurately what punch the Germans were still nursing.