Second Battle of El Alamein

Second Battle of El Alamein is an important turning point in the battlefield of North Africa. The Axis forces were quickly defeated after this battle and were never able to pose a threat to the Allies in North Africa. The battle is one of the most famous battles of World War 2. The Allies since June 1942 achieved victory in Midway had achieved a decisive victory again.

In the battlefield of North Africa, the Allies all along maintained a certain degree of superiority. In the beginning of the war, although the British troops were at a disadvantage in terms of troop size, were obviously in favorable conditions as to training and equipping and therefore in Operation Compass decisively defeated the Italian Army. Later, the Germans sent reinforcements to North Africa but in a few in numbers. The British troops still retain the advantage in troop size compared with the Germans, including superiority in number of personnel and weapons. While the Axis powers in the Battle of Gazala scored a major victory, but they did not change the balance of power between the two sides. After that, with provisions of supplies from the United States, the advantage of the Allies was further enhanced. Before the Second Battle of El Alamein, the Allies in Egypt had gained almost overwhelming advantages whether in the air, on the ground or at sea. As the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force could effectively control the eastern Mediterranean, the Axis forces deployed in Egypt frontline suffered extreme lack of supplies. Although the Axis power controlled the important port Tobruk, without the ability to escort, however, transport vessels could not safely reach the port, thus the Axis forces commanded by Rommel suffered substantial lack of both fuel and ammunition. On the other hand, the Allies could bypass the Mediterranean or the Cape transport large quantities of materials to Egypt. As for military forces equipped by the two sides, the Germans in a very long time only deployed three divisions in North Africa and till several months before the battle, one division and one airborne brigade were deployed in that area. Despite of the little bit larger number of the Italian Army, the equipment and training levels were lower. The Axis powers had only half of the tanks of the Allies, which also included many old poor-performance Italian tanks. The situation of the Allies was quite the opposite. The number of troops deployed in North Africa had been steadily increasing. Before the battle, the number had increased as more than double of the number of the opponent. They not only had a large quantity of tanks, but also equipped with a large number of new US-made M4 Sherman tanks. The difference in strength between the two sides was the biggest since the outbreak of the war in North Africa.

The international situation was also changing at this time. The overwhelming advantage of the Axis Group in the early stage of World War 2 had gone. At this point, the Germans and the Soviets were engaged fiercely in the Battle of Stalingrad. The Germans in the east were involved into a war of attrition. In the Pacific theater, the Japanese maritime superiority because of Midway defeat quickly disappeared. If the Allies gained victory in North Africa, the trend of the war would be more favorable to the Allies.

In October 1942, the Axis forces in the territory Egypt had been fully transferred to defense. Their last offensive launched in September failed to break the British defenses. As the Germans used their full strength for reinforcements of the Battle of Stalingrad, the battle in North Africa within a period of time would not get any reinforcements. Italy could not afford to send more troops to North Africa. On the defense line of the Axis powers, the Italian Army’s infantry divisions and German reinforcement units newly arrived were placed on the first line while the Germans and Italian Army’s armored divisions were put on the second line, indicating that Rommel trusted more the troops led by himself for a long time, either the German or the Italian forces. The Axis’ first line of defense on the left wing that was closest to the coastline laid the 164 Light Division and the Italian 102nd Motorized Division. In the middle were the Italian 25th and 27th Infantry Divisions. On the right wing there were the Italian 17th Infantry Division, 185th Airborne Division and the German Ramcke Parachute Brigade. On the second line there were three German divisions, the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, 90th Light Division plus three Italian divisions, 132nd and 133rd Armored Division, 101st Motorized Division. These forces had only 116,000 people in total because compared with the British troops, the number of the Germans were relatively smaller. And after fighting for a long time, all troops did not reach full strength, though it seemed to be many designations, the actual quantity was rather small. This defensive tactic was relatively simple. At first, a large number of mines were laid on the perimeter of the first line, slowing marching speed of the opponent. Once the enemy broke through the first line of defense, the armored troops deployed in the rear would fight back immediately and block the breakthrough position. The first-line troops of the Allies forces at the right wing near the coast of Australia was still the 9th Infantry Division, which had been always deployed in this area in the recent several battles. New Zealand 2nd Division defended the right wing together with the division. These two forces had a wealth of operational experience. In addition, the British 51st Infantry Division was deployed in this region, which one of the recent reinforcements sent to North Africa and it was the first time for it to fight in North Africa. In the middle there were the British 50th Infantry Division and the Indian 4th Infantry Division. 50th Infantry Division also included an infantry brigade from Greece. In the left wing there was the British 44th Infantry Division. The British 1st, 7th and 10th Armored Divisions were deployed on the second line as the tactical unit. The total number of all the Allies forces was close to 200,000 people, twice as many as that of the opponent.

The terrain near El Alamein was different from other places in North Africa. To the south lies Qattara Depression. Tanks could not pass through this region. This terrain protected flanks of security of the forces, so that the side with the advantage could take the approach of frontal attacks to defeat the enemy. This is exactly the reason that Auchinleck after the defeat in Gazala established defense line in this area. The Axis forces could not attack the British troops from flanks again.

The battle commenced on October 23. The British prepared for this attack for six weeks. The Axis had the same time to organize the defense. During this period, the Axis laid more than 500,000 mines, a considerable part of which was captured in attacking Tobruk. Montgomery’s plan was to send engineers to clear mines in the north and opened up two channels. The British could make use of these channels to attack the Axis forces. Once the British successfully passed through the minefield, the advantage of troop size could eventually overwhelm the Axis forces. And because of the shortage of fuel, armored forces’ capability of the Axis was greatly reduced. They even had no fuel for retreat. Rommel’s plan was very simple, which was making every effort to resist offensives of the enemy until the other battlefields’ situations changed. If the Germans won the Battle of Stalingrad, the British may withdraw a part of the forces and deploy the forces in the outlying areas of the Caucasus. In the Operation Compass, in the case of successive victories, the British were forced to transfer troops to reinforce Greece, resulting that the Germans had a chance to reinforce North Africa. At ten o’clock at night on 23rd, the British started to take actions after bombing fiercely the positions of the enemy. The British infantry troops attacked first, codenamed as Operation Lightfoot. Because infantry would not trigger anti-tank mines, so the action was coded like that. Sappers followed infantries to demine. Thus, the British three armored divisions would be able to pass through the minefield and launch a full-scale attack. The main direction the attack of the British was in the north and mostly armored units were deployed there. In the south, the British also launch feints to attract the attention of the enemy. Although because the minefield range was too large, the initial progress went not too well, on the second day the British troops were still able to pass the minefield and began to attack the defense line of the Axis. Rommel was not on the front line when the battle broke out. He was taking the advantage of the relatively peaceful situation of the front line and recuperating in Europe. The commander Georg Stumme on behalf of Rommel died of a heart attack on the 24th. Rommel had to immediately go back to the African front. On 24th, armored forces for the two sides began to fight and each lost some tanks without the winning side determined. On 25th, the Allies continued to attack in the north. Infantry and armored forces cooperated together. The Germans tried to find out the weak links in the Allies in order to launch a counter attack but failed. But for the Axis, the good news was that in the evening of 25th, Rommel returned to the front. After evaluating the warring situation, he determined that the direction of the Allies’ main attack was in the north, which was close to the area of the coast. He commanded the 15th Armored Division and the 164th Light Division to launch a counter attack, but under heavy artillery fire and air strikes of the enemy they failed. At this point, the 21st Panzer as a second-line troop was still deployed in the south. But serious lack of fuel limited their mobility to reinforce other troops. Till 26th, the British only made small progresses. Montgomery decided to mobilize the reserved troops to continue to attack. But on the same day, a tanker ship went to Tobruk was sunk by the Allies, so the Axis troops on the front line would be facing fuel exhaustion, which was very beneficial for the attack of the Allies. Since then, news about other transport vessels were sunk by the Allies came. After the battle lasted for about one week, the British on 29th still had 800 combat tanks while the Axis had less than 300, and most of them were Italian tanks. Till 30th, the Axis forces had been unable to withstand the British offensive and got ready to retreat. Although at this time some fuel was shipped to Benghazi, it was too late.

The battle entered into November and the British continued to take its advantage to slowly advance. At this point, most of the troops of both sides focused on the northern front. In the Germans, Ramcke Parachute Brigade still remained in the south while the rest four divisions were all located in the northern area. The British concentrated all the armored forces in the north and there were only two infantry divisions in the south. On 2nd November, both sides bore huge losses in the battle, but the remaining Axis forces could no longer resist new attacks launched by the British forces. Rommel intended to retreat westward to Fuka, which was about 80 kilometers backwards. The Italian 132nd Armored Division previously deployed in the southern area was transferred to the north on the same day. On 3rd November, the Axis forces began to fully retreat. All the forces throughout the front had joined the retreat. But Hitler and Mussolini both commanded the frontline troops not to withdrawal and to continue to resist the enemy’s attack. As a commander, without support from his men, he would not be able to obtain the victory only by relying on giving orders. On November 4th, several Italian divisions collapsed and the commander of German Africa Corps Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma was also captured on the same day. These defeated and annihilated troops at this time not only had no fuel, ammunition, but also even food and water. Given that the frontline situation had completely collapsed, Rommel disregarded the order to continue to resist and ordered to retreat. But because the retreat opportunity was delayed, a large number of infantry troops could not leave the battlefield. After that, the British pursued the Axis forces until on 11st when the war ended, the Axis forces had been deported to the outside of the Egyptian border. Afterwards, Rommel for the purpose of preventing the extremely weak troops to suffer further blow, he led the troops to quickly retreat westward.

The whole battle ended with the complete victory of the Allies. The Axis forces lost a total of about 37,000 people while the Allies lost a total of 13,500 people. And the battle ended the battle mode in North Africa before, which was the defeated side retreated and restructured and launched counterattack again after shortening supply lines. Because the British already had an overwhelming advantage, the Axis forces were no longer able to launch a massive counterattack. The result of the battle completely embodied strengths of the two sides. Montgomery won fame with the battle. His cautious command reduced losses of the British and obtained victory. Although the Axis forces failed, they were still worthy of respect. They still had 70% of the troops successfully retreating from the battlefield. And if it was not the unpractical order from the high commanders to defend, the German and Italian military forces’ losses would be less. In the Battle of Stalingrad undergoing at the same time, the situation of the Germans had gradually caught passive. The Germans started to be repulsed on all fronts. In the Second Battle of El Alamein, the Allies’ victory was more dependent on the strategic level. If only in terms of the tactical level, the Allies achieved limited success with such an overwhelming advantage. The victory gained by the Axis forces in the Battle of Gazala was the perfect example of a tactical victory. But tactical victory even better could compare with an ugly strategic victory. The Axis forces led by Rommel would certainly be defeated and the only question was when they would be defeated. This battle answered this question.

In the end of the battle, large-scale U.S. and British forces landed in French North Africa. The French troops stationed in the area joined the Allies after a short-term resistance. The Axis had only Tunisia in North Africa. Although since then some reinforcements were sent to Africa, it was an utterly inadequate measure. The Allies finally in May 1943 completely eliminated the Axis forces in Tunisia.

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