The War in North Africa and the Battle of El Alamein

The fighting in North Africa and the battle of El Alamein

The battle of El Alamein was a turning point in World War II. The battle began on October 23, 1942 and lasted for 11 days until November 3, when the lines of defense of the German-Italian army were breached and British armored forces penetrated westward to the rear of the Germans. In order to understand the moves of the battle of El-Alamein, one must recall the course of the battles that preceded it, characterized by fierce armor battles in which mobility, firepower and audacity were the decisive factors.

Rommel spent most of 1941 building the new corps, and organizing the Italian units that had almost been destroyed in battles with the British in early 1941. Immediately after his arrival in North Africa in February 1941 as Commander of the Axis forces, Rommel launched an offensive against the British forces in Libya.

The attack was stopped at the Egyptian border and the English still managed to keep Tobruk, the important harbor on the Libyan coast, behind the German lines. Rommel's supply lines were now long and vulnerable. His attack was halted and his forces dug themselves in on the Egyptian border in order to reorganize themselves. Rommel established a second panzer division by redistributing the tanks at his disposal. These divisions had a standard of 194 tanks each but in reality, they had much less. Ships with reinforcements from Italy to North Africa had to cross the Mediterranean Sea, which was controlled by the British navy and air force, and most of these ships and tankers were sunk on the way, thus preventing regular transport to Rommel’s forces of reinforcements and essential supplies and particularly petrol.

During the entire campaign of more than two years (February 1941 to May 1943), the forces under Rommel's command paid a heavy price on the battlefield. Without the Germans capturing British dumps from time to time, the campaign would have ended earlier.

On June 21, 1941, the British commander, General Wavell, was replaced by General Auchinleck, the commander of the Indian army. It should be remembered that at the time India was a British colony and its large and impressive army was commanded by British officers in all the senior ranks. The British forces were reinforced and organized into a new framework with a name that became very famous - the Eighth Army. On November 18, 1941Auchinlek launched an offensive to free Tobruk from the siege, recapture the Western Desert and Libya and, in particular, to defeat the Axis forces under Rommel.

In the first two objectives, the British succeeded, but in the third, defeat of the enemy, they failed. Rommel managed to extract his forces and retreated westward in an orderly fashion. The British advanced after him and took Benghazi again on December 24, 1941. There they found Rommel's forces organized against them with stable lines of defence. Again there was a lull in the fighting. The British were forced to organize new supply lines, much longer, and based on sea transport to the port of Benghazi. These operations ceased almost immediately when Rommel unexpectedly captured the town on January 28, 1942. Rommel's forces organized themselves in defense, laying wide minefields and absorbing those reinforcements that managed to survive the passage by sea.

The two sides remained static, built up supplies and prepared to go on the offensive. Rommel attacked first on May 26, 1942. After a long and brutal battle, the 8th Army was totally defeated and the British forces were forced to retreat all the way back to Egypt. This time Rommel managed to capture Tobruk as he progressed. The fortifications there were not maintained during the year since Tobruk had successfully survived the siege. The capture of Tobruk on 21 June 1942 marked the climax of Rommels campaign in North Africa. Hitler awarded him the rank of Fieldmarshal (Rommel would have probably much preferred to receive a Panzer division instead). The German offensive was halted only when it reached El Alamein, just 130 km from Alexandria, and Rommel attempted with the last of his strength to break through the strong line of defense, but without success.

In this operation, known as the first battle of El Alamein. Rommel lost mainly because of the exhaustion of his forces, lack of fuel, and deterioration of equipment. The British,with their backs to the wall, were close to their supply depots and enjoyed a decisive advantage in manpower and firepower. Both sides needed time to reorganise.

On August 8, 1942, a new British commander was appointed, General Bernard Montgomery, who took command  from Auchinleck. Rommel tried to break through the British lines again in a battle at  Alam Halfa south of El Alamein on 31 August 1942. This attempt was also unsuccessful and was stopped by the British forces.Montgomery was well prepared for this battle as the date of the attack and the German plan were known to him as Rommel headquarters' Enigma messages had been decoded by the British.

The British Navy and Air Force succeeded in intercepting most of the supply ships that were supposed to reach Rommel (the dates of their voyage and their route were made known through the decoding of  Enigma), and he could not keep his positions for long. Despite all the many disadvantages he nevertheless managed to hold the line for several months. In the meantime, the 8th Army under Montgomery built up great strength, far beyond what was available to the commanders who preceded him, in preparation for the decisive battle that was expected to be difficult and bloody. The Battle of El-Alamein began on October 23 with a massive artillery bombardment, unprecedented in this campaign, and ended with a British victory on November 3, 1942.

It is to the credit of the German and Italian forces, that the outcome of the battle was in doubt for many days. Finally, Rommel's forces began a retreat that brought them westward 2,000 kilometers to Tripoli in April 1943. Large American and British forces that had invaded Tunisia at the beginning of November 1942 advanced eastward. Rommel's army was forced to fight on two fronts: against the Eighth Army advancing from the east and the new forces that had just landed in the west. Rommel continued to retreat to Tunis, despite the entreaties of Hitler and Mussolini. There he clashed with the inexperienced 2nd US Army Corps. Rommel inflicted heavy losses on the Americans, including 150 tanks and 1,600 soldiers captured in the Battle of the Kassserine Pass on 14th February 1943.

This was the last success of the forces commanded by Rommel in North Africa. On March 7, Rommel returned to Germany on his own initiative for a personal meeting with Hitler. Rommel explained the situation in North Africa and stressed the immediate need to replenish supplies to his army on a large scale. Hitler refused to increase deliveries and ordered Rommel not to return to the front. There, after fierce and bloody battles, the last remaining Germans and Italians surrendered on 6th May.