First Battle of El Alamein

This is the first major battle occurred at El Alamein. The second Battle of El Alamein is usually well known. In this battle, the British resisted attacks from the Axis forces, making the front stabilized and defeated Rommel’s plans of capturing the port of Alexandria and even Suez Canal.

During the period of May to June 1942, the Axis forces launched the Battle of Gazala and defeated the Allies troops stationed in eastern Libya. The Allies lost more than 50,000 people and nearly a thousand tanks and the important port Tobruk was also occupied. The Allies were repulsed back to the territory of Egypt, which was the biggest victory achieved by the Axis powers since the outbreak of the North African Campaign. Rommel hoped to march forward triumphantly. If they could control the port of Alexandria or further control Suez Canal, a decisive blow against the British forces in the Middle East would be made. In the Battle of Gazala battle, the total loss of the Axis forces was about 5,000 people. But most of the tanks were destroyed in the battle. The Allies’ losses were up to 50,000 or more. Almost all tanks involved in the battle were destroyed. For the Axis, the most difficult was that it was difficult to supplement the losses. The Axis not only had no new reinforcements, but also was in shortage of weapons and ammunitions. Moreover, there was only ten days from the end of the Battle Gazala to the start of the new campaign and the troops had continued fighting for one month and thus were very tired. In contrast, the Allies could transfer some reserved forces, which had been in a state of rest and reorganization. These forces included several divisions from New Zealand and Australia with a lot of combat experience and plenty of rest. Therefore, the situation became evenly matched battle because the Axis just made a significant victory but did not get supplement while the Allies although suffered defeat, had enough reserved forces. Furthermore, since the previous campaign suffered a substantial defeat, the British 8th Army commander Neil Ritchie was relieved of his duties. Supreme Commander of the British Middle East Auchinleck would personally command the 8th Army.

Battle of Gazala ended on June 21, but the fighting did not stop afterwards. The Axis forces advanced following all the way the British retreated. Initially the British evacuated to Mersa Matruh, 160 km from the border of the territory of Egypt. Rommel sent three German divisions that he only got to advance fast forward and quickly broke the Allies defenses and drove the Allies further to El Alamein, which was also 160 km from Mersa Matruh. In other words, the Axis forces within 10 days in late June marched forward for more than 300 kilometers again. The Germans on the war of the marching continued to attack the British, wiping out the Indian 29th Infantry Brigade and capturing more than 6,000 people. The brigade was part of the Indian 5th Infantry Division. The Indian 29th Infantry Brigade was once under command of the British 7th Armored Division in the Battle of Gazala and had been fighting continuously for over a month. Besides, the Germans also seized a large number of supplies and weapons, and even dozens of tanks. On June 30, the Germans had arrived in El Alamein. The Axis believed that victory was in sight. UK institutions in Cairo had begun to destroy documents. Defeats day after day made the British worry that Egypt would be occupied by the Axis.

In fact, Rommel’s forces had been exhausted at this time and various supplies were in shortage. The Axis powers originally expected trimming and supplement a few weeks after the Battle of Gazala, but at this time it was still continuing to fight. Rommel’s plan was still making use of the German troops as the spearhead of the attack to cut off contact between the enemy forces, and then the Italian troops follow up to attack the enemy. However, because of the previous defeat, the British began to focus on synergies defense between the various units as well as defenses of their flanks and behind. The Germans began to attack on July, but the initial attack was not successful. 90th Light Division was supposed to bypass the British defense and advance eastward, but because of the route errors, it encountered and fought with the defending South African 1st Division. This situation occurred partially because the Germans took actions at 3:00 o’clock before the dawn, which inevitably led to such mistakes. The 15th and 21st Panzers not only encountered storms, but also attacked fiercely by the Air Force of the enemy. At this point, the Axis air force had been unable to provide effective air support for ground forces for various reasons. At 10:00 in the morning of the same day, 21st Panzer travelled to Deir el Shein and met the defending Indian 18th Infantry Brigade there, which was reinforcement that just arrived. The British transferred the brigade from Iraq to its emergency to Egypt. The Germans spent a whole day just to break the Indian defense forces. But after that, the British 1st Armoured Division arrived at the battlefield and repelled the Germans. The Germans on the first day lost nearly 20 tanks, but the tanks they had before the battle began were less than a total of 60.

On July 2, the Germans continued the offensive. The defeat suffered by the Germans proved they did not have enough strength to complete the previous battle plan. After that, the Axis forces reduced its operational objectives and focused on marching eastward to Ruweisat Ridge, but still suffered tenacious blocking from the British. The Germans, on July 3, continued to attack but still failed to make progress. Then, the New Zealand 2nd Division attempted to attack the other’s flank and back while the Royal Air Force sent about 1,000 aircrafts every day to support ground forces. These actions made the Axis forces face a huge threat. On July 5, Rommel recognized that continuing offensive was unrealistic and ordered the troops to get ready into defense. At this point, the Allies forces continued to strengthen. The Australian 9th Infantry Division had been deployed in the frontline and Indian 5th Infantry Division had also been added a brigade. Starting from July 8, the Australian army launched a series of counter-attack. In the fighting lasting for a week, the Axis forces suffered a major blow. More than 3,500 were captured, mainly Italian Army. They also bore the same number of casualties. On July 14, the British turned to attack the Axis forces near Ruweisat Ridge. Auchinleck believed the Italian Army combat capability was weak, so he chose the Italian Army positions as the primary target. New Zealand troops were sent for an attack plan. As the Italian Army was the major target, the Germans immediately went to support and launched a counterattack. The battle lasted for three days and the British achieved part of the battle plan and captured 2000 Italian troops, giving the Italian troops a comparably major hit. But the British itself also suffered the loss of their own. The New Zealand forces were captured more than 700 people. A New Zealand Infantry Brigade’s headquarter was destroyed. In addition, both sides suffered great casualties. On July 17, the Australian army in the right wing attacked again. Despite of the initial success and capturing of more than 700 Italian Army troops, then the Italian Army fought back and repulsed the Australian Army. On July 22, the Australian Army attacked again and repulsed the Axis forces, mainly because they had a huge advantage of far more troops and tanks than the other. Still, there were more than 20 tanks were destroyed. New Zealand and Indian troops continued to attack on Ruweisat Ridge. But the attack went very unsuccessfully and New Zealand forces suffered a loss of thousands of people. And the armored forces for reinforcements lost about 100 tanks. These armored troops were reinforcements that just arrived. In order to break through the enemy lines, the British launched a major offensive at the right wing on July 27. Like previous attacks, they suffered fierce counterattack from the Germans and failed. Attacking for continuous days caused huge losses to the British, but still failed to break through the defense. Therefore, the British could only transfer to defenses. The situation that Rommel thought to be desperate was improved.

Finally, the battle ended in a draw. The Axis failed to continue its victory that had lasted for some time and the British did not make use of manpower and resources to defeat the opponent. Due to the poor performance of the British troops on the battlefield, the British commander of Auchinleck was replaced. Harold Alexander would replace his duties. William Gottfried would serve as commander of the 8th Army. However, due to his accidental death, Montgomery was appointed to take over his duties. Although at this time on the battlefield there was still no winner, the advantage had clearly turned to the Allies side. From this battle, it could be seen that the Axis forces had exhausted its backup forces and continued fighting with tired troops. The British, on the other hand, replaced the battered troops with reinforcements. The strength difference between the two sides, in terms of weapon, especially number of tanks, was to expand. Air superiority was also obviously in the hands of the Allies. Just because of Rommel’s excellent ability to command, the Axis barely withstood the Allies’ counterattack. But a few months later, the Allies would gain an overwhelming advantage and then it would be completely unavoidable for the Axis troops to be defeated.

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