El Alamein

In memory of my Uncle Cyril RAOC and of the lads from 1 RTR who lost their lives in this epic battle of WW2

General Montgomery had two things going for him when he was preparing for the decisive battle at El Alamein. Firstly he had access to the little known secrets from Bletchley Park, known as Station X, on intercepts of the secret German code Enigma. Secondly, he had set up a 'theatrical' company many miles south of El Alamein, in which a phoney Army was set up, with wooden and paper tanks, phoney radio traffic and this convinced Rommel that a push was being planned down there. He therefore diverted much needed armour and men to counter this 'phoney army'. So much so, that when Monty launched his offensive it was against a force weakened to that extent. In the image above you can clearly see the Royal Tank Regiment badge that Monty wore with pride. I served with the 1st Royal Tank Regiment in the 70s and 80s.

El Alamein is 150 miles west of Cairo. The men in the Allied forces respected Monty. He was described as "as quick as a ferret and about as likeable." Montgomery put a great deal of emphasis on organisation and morale. He spoke to his troops and attempted to restore confidence in them. But above all else, he knew that he needed to hold El Alamein any way possible.  There was no way Rommel could be allowed any further advances as he would now be, quite literally, on the road to Cairo. However, Montgomery was also helped by the people who worked at Bletchley Park who had got hold of Rommel’s battle plan and had deciphered it. Therefore ‘Monty’ knew not only Rommel’s plan but also the route of his supply lines. By August 1942, only 33% of what Rommel needed was getting through to him. Rommel was also aware that while he was being starved of supplies, the Allies were getting vast amounts through as they still controlled the Suez and were predominant in the Mediterranean. To resolve what could only become a more difficult situation, Rommel decided to attack quickly even if he was not well-equipped. By the end of August 1942, Montgomery was ready himself. He knew that Rommel was very short of fuel and that the Germans could not sustain a long campaign. When Rommel attacked, Montgomery was asleep. When he was woken from his sleep to be told the news, it is said that he replied "excellent, excellent" and went back to sleep again.

South of El Alamein at Alam Halfa, the Allies had planted a massive minefield. German Panzer tanks were severely hit by these and the rest were held up behind them and became sitting targets for Allied fighter planes that could easily pick off tank after tank.  A sandstorm saved Rommel from even greater punishment from Cunningham's RAF. Rommel had no choice but to retreat. He had expected Montgomery’s Eighth Army to follow him as this was standard military procedure. But Monty failed to do this, not being ready for an offensive and he ordered his men to stay put while they held a decisive defensive line. Montgomery was actually waiting for the arrival of Sherman tanks - 300 of them to assist the Allies. Their 75 mm gun shot a 6lb shell that could penetrate a Panzer at 2000 metres. The 300 Monty had were invaluable.

In the days leading up to the battle, the Germans had 110,000 men and 500 tanks. A number of these tanks were poor Italian tanks and could not match the new Sherman’s. The Germans were also short of fuel. The Allies had more than 200,000 men and more than 1000 tanks. They were also armed with a six-pound artillery gun which was highly effective up to 1500 metres. Facing Monty was a 5 mile wide German minefield known as the Devils Garden. To throw Rommel off the scent, Montgomery launched ‘Operation Bertram’. This plan was to convince Rommel that the full-might of the Eighth Army would be used in the south. Dummy tanks were erected in the region. A dummy pipeline was also built - slowly, so as to convince Rommel that the Allies were in no hurry to attack the Afrika Korps. Monty’s army in the north also had to ‘disappear’. Tanks were covered so as to appear as non-threatening lorries. Bertram worked as Rommel became convinced that the attack would be in the south.

The start of the Allied attack on Rommel was code-named "Operation Lightfoot". The infantry would move first, with also a diversionary attack further south at the same time. At the start of the main attack, Monty signalled, "Everyone must be imbued with the desire kill Germans, even the padres - one for weekdays and two on Sundays". The infantry would not detonate the anti tank mines, being too light on their feet, hence the operational name. Following on behind the infantry were the Engineers, to clear paths through the extensive minefield. The attack started with 800 artillery guns opening fire on Rommel's positions. Whilst underneath this barrage, the Infantry and Engineers advanced. The plan to get the tanks through on the first night failed, Montgomery blamed his tank chief Lumsden and told him in no uncertain terms that he either got through or would be replaced. The Infantry also did not advance as far as was planned and Monty had to dig in.

Rommel had also been suffering. He only had 300 tanks left to the Allies over 900 tanks. Monty next planned to make a move to the Mediterranean. Australian units attacked the Germans by the Mediterranean and Rommel had to move his tanks north to cover this. The Australians took many casualties but their attack was to change the course of the battle. Rommel became convinced that the main thrust of Montgomery’s attack would be near the Mediterranean and he moved a large amount of his Afrika Korps there. The brave Australians fought with ferocity - even Rommel commented on the "rivers of blood" in the region. However, the Australians had given Montgomery room to manoeuvre. Monty launched Operation Supercharge to the south of the Australians with British and New Zealand Forces and caught Rommel by surprise. Montgomery's knowledge of German strengths and dispositions was therefore causing Rommel to fight reactively instead of proactively - in other words he was already chasing the battle.

Again Monty had a temporary set back when 123 tanks of the 9th Armoured Brigade attacked the German lines. A sandstorm saved Rommel. Many of the tanks got lost and they were easy for the German 88 gunners to pick off. 75% of the 9th Brigade was lost. But the overwhelming number of Allied tanks meant that more arrived to help out and it was these tanks that tipped the balance. Rommel put tank against tank - but his men were outnumbered. On Nov 2nd Rommel knew that all was lost and disobeyed Hitler's order to fight to the finish which would have resulted in total annihilation of the Afrika Korps. As it was Rommel had lost a quite few of his senior officers, many captured. Rommel had lost 25000 killed, and Monty 13,000. A costly battle that eventually ended German interest in North Africa. The battle of El Alamein also proved to be the catalyst to allow Allies to take part in the invasion of Europe's 'underbelly', Sicily and Italy.

Crusaders of the 17/21st Lancers Royal Armoured Corps

El Alamein Cemetery as it is today

As a footnote to all of this, Rommel's driver worked for the 1st Royal Tank Regiment Barracks when we were posted in Osnabruck, Germany.
He told us that all Rommel's crew had to be fluent in English. His surname was Buer and he was the son of a Bergen landlady. The history of my own Regiment says:

The Battle of El Alamein started at last light on the 23rd October 1942.  After 10 days of intensive fighting, when casualties on both sides were extremely heavy, 2 corridors had been punched into the German defences to the north.  The Regiment moved up with 7th Armoured Division to exploit the breakthrough. It pushed through the gap and decimated the remnants of the German and Italian Forces.  The way was now open for a rapid advance and in the next 15 days the "Desert Rats" advanced 800 miles.  As the "Rats" approached the Mareth Line, Rommel seized upon the opportunity to try and destroy them. To meet the threat the Division set firm on the commanding ground at Medinine whilst reserves were rushed up.  They arrived just before the German attack, which was broken with a loss of 52 German tanks - to which NONE of ours were lost. Whilst the 8th Army was advancing through Libya, the 1st Army and the Americans had landed to the west of Tunisia at Algiers a race ensued to Tunis between the 1sy Army and the 8th.  During May 1943, after the capture of Sfax, the 7th Armoured Division were suddenly transferred from the 8th Army, after a well concealed march of 130 miles, joined the 1st Army.  The Division, with the 11th Hussars, 1 RTR and 5 RTR in the lead, were the first to reach Tunis.  In such a large city it is impossible to substantiate claims, but a Gunner Officer, attached to 1 RTR, well remembers being shot at from BEHIND by another Regiment claiming to be first!  Thus the African Campaign drew to a close. The Regiment was not required during the Sicily Campaign and was able to rest and refit before preparing for the landings in Italy.

(Note 1): July 2007, and I have had an email stating that 1 RTR, at this time, were equipped thus: At Alamein, the RHQ and 'A' Squadron were equipped with Stuart tanks, and 'B' and 'C' Squadrons were equipped with Grant tanks. The regiment received its first Sherman tanks after Alamein. Writers source is the 1RTR War Diary (WO169/4504), which has a detailed daily tank state. (Verification please, if possible?).

That is from my own page on www.1rtr.net

Rommel's prefered method of quick and comfortable passage between units of the Afrika Corps. Full span wing slots and flaps enabled the Storch to take off in approx 215 feet and land in 61 feet. It could virtually hover in a 25 MPH wind!! This aircraft pioneered what we now know as STOL (Short Take Off and Landing).