The Battle of Alam el Halfa took place between 30 August and 5 September 1942 south of El Alamein during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Panzerarmee Afrika—a German–Italian force commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel—attempted an envelopment of the British Eighth Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery. In the last major Axis offensive (Operation Brandung/Unternehmung Brandung) of the Western Desert Campaign, Rommel had planned to defeat the Eighth Army before Allied reinforcements made an Axis victory in Africa impossible.
Montgomery, who had been forewarned of Rommel's intentions by Ultra intelligence intercepts, left a gap in the southern sector of the front, knowing that Rommel planned to attack there, and deployed the bulk of his armour and artillery around Alam el Halfa Ridge, 20 miles (32 km) behind the front. In a new tactic, the tanks were used in an anti-tank role, remaining in their positions on the ridge. Montgomery intended to hold the armour back, refusing to allow them to sortie out as they had in the past.
With the attacks on the ridge failing and his supply situation precarious, Rommel ordered a withdrawal. Montgomery chose not to exploit his defensive victory, preferring to continue the methodical build up of strength for his autumn offensive, the Second Battle of El Alamein. However, the 2nd New Zealand Division, under Lieutenant-General Bernard C. Freyberg, launched an abortive attack on Italian positions, suffering heavy losses.
Rommel was to claim that British air superiority played a decisive factor in winning the battle, being unaware of British Ultra intelligence. Rommel noted that the damaging attacks had a great impact on Axis motorised forces and forced him to break off his offensive. Rommel adapted to the increasing Allied dominance in the air by keeping his forces dispersed. The price of the battle to the Axis was not just a tactical defeat and retreat. With the Alam Halfa failure, Rommel was deprived not only of the operational ability to initiate offensives, he lost the operational and tactical ability to defend the German base in Africa. Axis strategic aims in the African theatre were no longer possible.
After Rommel's failed attempt to break through during the First Battle of El Alamein and the counterattacks by the Eighth Army, under General Sir Claude Auchinleck, during July 1942, both sides were exhausted. They dug in to rebuild their strength. At Alamein, Rommel's supply position was precarious. His lines of supply were very extended: his main supply ports of Benghazi and Tobruk were 800 mi (1,300 km) and 400 mi (640 km) from the front, respectively and Tripoli—1,200 mi (1,900 km) away—had almost dropped out of use because of its remoteness. Furthermore, the original Axis plan for the Battle of Gazala in June had been to pause for six weeks on the Egyptian frontier after the capture of Tobruk to regroup and rearm. Rommel, however, had decided to maintain his momentum to prevent the Eighth Army from organising new defences and thus pursue the British and Commonwealth forces to Cairo and possibly the Suez Canal. The result of this was that Axis air forces which had been allocated to take part in an attack on Malta had to join the improvised pursuit into Egypt. As a consequence, the British were able to rebuild their strength to attack Axis shipping carrying supplies to North Africa resulting especially from mid-August onwards in heavy Axis losses at sea notably from a reinforced Mediterranean submarine force. At the end of August, Rommel's forces, although reinforced by fresh troops which had been flown in from Crete, were short of key supplies, notably ammunition and petrol. Despite his supply difficulties, the Panzerarmee Afrika managed to rebuild its armoured strength during August. German tank strength rose from 133 "runners" to 234 at the end of the month and the equivalent Italian figure rose from 96 to 281 (of which 234 were medium tanks). Air strength was also built up with Luftwaffe strength rising to 298 aircraft by the end of August (compared with 210 before the Battle of Gazala) and the Italian number rising to 460 aircraft.
General Sir Harold Alexander—the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of Middle East Command—had only a short distance from his supply bases and ports in Egypt to the front line. Nevertheless, his lines of supply to Britain, the Commonwealth and the United States were very long which resulted in a long gap between requirements being identified and equipment arriving in theatre. By the summer of 1942, however, large quantities of equipment were arriving, notably Sherman tanks were starting to arrive and six-pounder anti-tank guns were replacing the obsolete two-pounders. The British and Commonwealth air forces were becoming increasingly influential, supported by newly arrived American squadrons which were building their battle worthiness. Furthermore, following a review in July of its performance during the first half of 1942, the intelligence function had been reorganised on a more integrated basis and, by mid August, British and Commonwealth forces were benefiting from this and the new protocols introduced to maximise the utility of intelligence information acquired from all sources.
German intelligence had warned Rommel of the arrival of a 100,000 long tons (100,000 t) convoy bringing new vehicles for the Allies in Egypt. Realizing that time was against him, and that the arrival of reinforcements for the British would tilt the balance in their favour, he decided to attack. He informed the Italian Comando Supremo in Rome that he would need 6,000 short tons (5,400 t) of fuel and 2,500 short tons (2,300 t) of ammunition before the planned start date at the end of the month. By 29 August, over 50 percent of the ships sent had been sunk and only 1,500 short tons (1,400 t) of fuel had arrived at Tobruk. Rommel could not postpone the attack because of his enemy's growing strength and so decided to take a chance on gaining a quick success. At the start of the battle, after Albert Kesselring had agreed to lend some of the Luftwaffe's fuel stock, Rommel had enough fuel for 150 mi (240 km) per vehicle with the troops and 250 mi (400 km) for other vehicles.
The Alamein sector did not present such a broad front as had been the case in other desert battles, which was precisely why Auchinleck had chosen to stand and fight there. Any armoured thrust would have to pass between the sea, in the north, and the Qattara Depression, in the south, which was impassable for tanks. The British defences were quite strong, but Rommel believed they had a weak point. The southern sector—between Munassib and Qaret El Himeimat—was lightly held and Rommel believed that it was lightly mined.
One account indicated the northern and central sectors of the front were so strongly fortified that the southern stretch of 15 mi (24 km)—between the New Zealanders "box" on the Alam Nayil Ridge and the Qattara Depression—was the only part of the front where a quick penetration could possibly have a chance to succeed. To achieve a breakthrough, Rommel was bound to take that line of advance. Since surprise in location was impossible, it was further indicated that Rommel had to depend on achieving surprise in time and speed. He hoped that if he broke through the southern sector rapidly, and got astride the Eighth Army's communications, it would throw the enemy off balance and render its defence disjointed. His plan was to be across the minefields in a night attack, and well beyond them before sunrise. In the north, Rommel had the Italian infantry divisions—supported by the Ramcke Parachute Brigade and the German 164th Infantry Division—conduct a frontal demonstration in an attempt to fix the British defenders in place while Rommel's main attack cut through the southern sector and then turn north in a sharp left hook movement into Allied supply lines. After this it was hoped most of the Allied units would be surrounded and destroyed. With characteristic optimism, Rommel's final goal was the occupation of Egypt, and in particular the Suez Canal.
This main attack was to be led by his German units, the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, accompanied by the 90th Light Division. To cover their flanks, he had the three divisions of the Italian XX Motorised Corps (XX Corpo d'Armata), commanded by Generale De Stefanis.
Since 13 August, command of the British Eighth Army had passed to Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery. British Ultra had anticipated an Axis attack, and the former commander of the Eighth Army—Auchinleck—set out the basic defensive plan but had included a number of contingency plans for defensive works around Alexandria and Cairo in case Axis armour broke through. After visiting the front lines, Montgomery ordered that these contingency plans be destroyed and emphasised his intention to hold the ground around Alamein at all costs.
In the northern sector (from just south of Ruweisat Ridge to the coast), XXX Corps—under Lieutenant-General William Ramsden and composed of the 9th Australian Division, the 1st South African Infantry Division and the 5th Indian Infantry Division with the 23rd Armoured Brigade in reserve— was deployed behind minefields.
The 2nd New Zealand Division was deployed to a 5 miles (8.0 km) section of front south of the Ruweisat Ridge. This defensive area was known as the "New Zealand box" and formed the northern end of the XIII Corps sector commanded by Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks. Accepting that the featureless southern sector would be very difficult to defend against a determined armoured attack, Montgomery chose for the 12 mi (19 km) of front from the New Zealand box to Qaret el Himeimat on the edge of the Qattara Depression to be lightly held, encouraging Rommel to attack at this point. This gap would be mined and wired while the 7th Motor Brigade Group and 4th Light Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division would cover the minefields but withdraw when necessary. The New Zealand box formed a corner to the main defences with its hinge of the higher ground at Alam Nayil.
The attackers would meet the main defensive positions when they swung north and approached the Alam El Halfa ridge, well in the rear of the Eighth Army's front. Here Montgomery chose to entrench the bulk of his medium tanks (concentrated in 22nd Armoured Brigade) and anti-tank units and await the Axis attack. Behind the British armour, on the high ground to their north east would be two brigades of the 44th (Home Counties) Division and concentrations of divisional and corps artillery.
The 10th Armoured Division had been refitting in the Nile Delta with General Grant tanks with the effective 75 millimetres (2.95 in) main gun and would reinforce the Alam El Halfa position when available. Most of the 8th Armoured Brigade arrived by 30 August, and took position to manoeuvre left of 22nd Armoured Brigade and on the flank of the enemy's expected advance. Once Montgomery had seen Rommel's dispositions after the initial advance, he released the 23rd Armoured Brigade from XXX Corps reserve at the eastern end of Ruweisat Ridge to XIII Corps attached to the 10th Armoured Division, and by 13:00 on 31 August, they had moved 100 Valentine tanks to fill the gap between 22nd Armoured Brigade and the New Zealanders.
The attack started on the night of 30 August, taking advantage of a full moon. From the start, things went wrong for Rommel; the RAF spotted the Axis vehicle concentrations and unleashed several air attacks on them. Fairey Albacores of the Royal Navy dropped flares to illuminate targets for Vickers Wellington medium bombers and for the artillery; also, the minefields that were thought to be thin turned out to be deep. The British units covering the minefields were the two brigades of the 7th Armoured Division (7th Motor and 4th Armoured), whose orders were to inflict maximum casualties before retiring. This they did, and the Axis losses began to rise. They included General Walther Nehring, the Afrika Korps commander, wounded in an air raid, and General Georg von Bismarck, commander of the 21st Panzer Division, killed by a mine explosion.
Despite these difficulties, Rommel's forces were through the minefields by midday the next day and had wheeled left and were drawn up ready to make the main attack originally scheduled for 06:00. The late running of the planned schedule and the continued harassing flank attacks from the 7th Armoured Division had forced them to turn north into Montgomery's flank further west than originally planned and directly toward the prepared defences on Alam el Halfa. At 13:00, the 15th Panzer Division set off, followed an hour later by 21st Panzer. The Allied units holding the ridge were the British 22nd Armoured Brigade with 92 Grants and 74 light tanks, supported by anti-tank units with six-pounder guns and the artillery of the 44th (Home Counties) and 2nd New Zealand Divisions.
One account indicates that the Germans had approximately 200 gun-armed tanks in the two Panzer divisions, and 240 in the two Italian armoured divisions. The Italian tanks were mostly obsolete models, with the exception of the Semovente da 75/18, which could defeat Allied medium tanks using HEAT shells (which could penetrate 70 mm of armour at 50 meters), while the Germans possessed a total of 74 up-armoured Panzer IIIs with the long 50 mm (1.97 in) gun (Pz.Kpfw III Ausf.L) and a total of 27 Panzer IVs mounting the new long 75 mm gun (Pz.Kpfw IV Ausf.F2). This same account further indicates that the British strength was at 700 tanks at the front, of which 160 were Grants. Only 500 of the British tanks were engaged in the armoured battle, which was brief.
As the Panzer divisions approached the ridge, the Panzer IV F2 tanks opened fire at long range and destroyed several British tanks. The British Grants were handicapped by their hull-mounted guns that prevented them from firing from "hull-down' positions. When the Germans came into range, they were exposed to the fire of the brigade and their tanks were hard hit. An attempt to outflank the British was thwarted by anti-tank guns, and with night beginning to fall and fuel running short because of the delays and heavy consumption over the bad 'going', General Gustav von Vaerst—now commanding the Afrika Korps—ordered the Panzers to pull back. During this engagement, the Germans lost 22 tanks and the British 21.
There had also been hard infantry fighting. In the central sector, the Italians of the 25th Infantry Division Bologna and German 433rd Infantry Regiment attacked several Indian, South African and New Zealand units on Ruweisat Ridge, and managed to capture Point 211 but was later driven off by a counter-attack. Although Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–45 refers to the Italo-German infantry action as simply 'feints', Captain Cyril Falls, a noted British military historian, wrote that it was a strong counter-attack requiring an equal response.
The night brought no respite for the Axis forces, as the Albacore and Wellington bombers returned to the attack, concentrating on the Axis supply lines. This added to Rommel's logistic difficulties as Allied action had sunk over 50 percent of the 5,000 long tons (5,100 t) of petrol promised to him by Mussolini. Accordingly, on the following day (1 September), the 21st Panzer Division was inactive (probably because of a lack of fuel) and operations were limited to an attack by the 15th Panzer Division toward the eastern flank of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. Their attack started at dawn but was quickly stopped by a flank attack from the Eighth Armoured Brigade. The Germans suffered little, as the British were under orders to spare their tanks for the coming offensive but they could make no headway either and were heavily shelled.
Meanwhile two Italian tank formations, 133rd Armoured Division Littorio and 132nd Armoured Division Ariete had moved up on the left of the Afrika Korps and the 90th Light Division and elements of Italian X Corps had drawn up to face the southern flank of the New Zealand box.
Air raids continued throughout the day and night and on the morning of 2 September, realising his offensive had failed and that staying in the salient would only add to his losses, Rommel decided to withdraw.
In a message to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), Rommel justified his decision to abandon the offensive by the lack of fuel, Allied air superiority and the loss of the element of surprise. On 2 September, the situation continued to deteriorate for the Axis. Armoured cars of the 4/8th Hussars (of the 4th Armoured Brigade) broke into the Axis supply echelons near Himeimat and attacked a group of 300 lorries, destroying 57 of them. As a result, Italian armoured units had to be moved to protect the supply lines and prevent further attacks. The second was not an active day on either side, except in the air, where the Desert Air Force (DAF) flew 167 bomber and 501 fighter sorties. Montgomery realised the Afrika Korps was about to withdraw. He devised offensive plans for 7th Armoured and 2nd New Zealand Divisions, though still under the proviso that they would not incur losses that would jeopardise further offensives. While the 7th Armoured Division's operations never got beyond harassment raids, the New Zealand division's attack was more serious. It involved the experienced 5th New Zealand Brigade and the green 132nd Brigade (under command from 44th Infantry Division), with armoured support, to attack southward across the supply lines of the Afrika Korps and isolate them east of the Allied lines. The attack, dubbed Operation Beresford, commenced at 22:30 on 3 September. The assault by the 5th New Zealand Brigade on the left of the attack inflicted heavy losses on the Italian defenders, and the New Zealanders beat off Axis counter-attacks the next morning. However, the attack by the 132nd Brigade was a failure, sustaining heavy losses. They were an hour late arriving at their start line by which time their enemy had been thoroughly roused by diversionary raids by the 6th New Zealand Brigade on their right flank. The brigade commander—Brigadier Robertson—was wounded and the 6th New Zealand Brigade commander, Brigadier Clifton, captured by a patrol of the Italian X battalion Folgore.
The Valentine tanks of the 46th (Liverpool Welsh) Royal Tank Regiment got lost in the darkness and ended up in a minefield where 12 of them were put out of action. The 90th Light Division dealt fiercely with the 132nd Brigade (which suffered 697 casualties in addition to the 275 casualties suffered by the New Zealanders), without being able to prevent Rommel's escape. The vigorous Axis defence suggested to Lieutenant General Bernard C. Freyberg—the New Zealand division's commander—that a renewed attack was unlikely to succeed. He therefore advised that the troops should be withdrawn from their very exposed positions and the operation called off. Montgomery and Horrocks agreed and the troops were withdrawn on the night of 4 September. A different account of the night action of the New Zealand infantry brigades is given by Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein. It should be noted that the 10th Indian Infantry Division were at the time in Cyprus. The position north of the New Zealand Division, however, was held by 5th Indian Infantry Division (it was relieved by the 4th Indian Infantry Division on 9 September):
An attack by our Luftwaffe against the 10th Indian Div [sic], which was in the assembly area for a counter attack against the centre of the front, caused the units which were assembled there to scatter to the winds. Also, all other attacks launched by other units against our flanks, especially the New Zealanders, were too weak to be able to effect a penetration—they could be repulsed. A night attack conducted against the X Italian Corps resulted in especially high losses for the British. Countless enemy dead lay on the battlefield and 200 prisoners were taken among whom was Gen (sic) Clifton, commanding general of the 6th New Zealand Brigade.
After this failure against the 185th Airborne Division Folgore, Montgomery decided to refrain from further attacks. The Afrika Korps was allowed to retire, though not without being further harried by the DAF, who carried out 957 sorties in 24 hours. On 5 September, the Axis units were back almost on their starting positions and the battle was over.
During the Battle of Alam el Halfa, the Allies suffered 1,750 casualties, compared to 2,930 for the Axis. The Allies lost more tanks than the Axis, but for the first time in this campaign there was no great disproportion in tank losses. In addition, the constant harassment by the RAF cost the Panzerarmee Afrika many transport vehicles. The battle was the last big offensive undertaken by the Axis in North Africa. Ultimately, it was the superior firepower of the Allies and their mastery of the skies that brought them victory.
There has been criticism of Montgomery's leadership during the battle, especially his choice to avoid losses, which prevented the British tank formations from finishing off the Afrika Korps when it was strung out between the minefields and Alam Halfa. Friedrich von Mellenthin in Panzer Battles painted a dramatic picture of Panzer divisions, paralysed by lack of fuel, under constant bombardment and awaiting a British onslaught.
Montgomery's answer was to point out that the Eighth Army was in a process of reformation with the arrival of new, untrained units and was, as a result, not ready to take the offensive. Nor was his army yet prepared logistically for a 1,600 mi (2,600 km) exploitation and pursuit were they to break through—the problem that had previously caused both sides to fail decisively to end the desert campaign after gaining tactical victory. Montgomery did not want his tanks being wasted on futile attacks against Rommel's anti-tank screen, something that they had frequently done in the past, in the process handing the initiative to the Axis forces. Indeed, as Rommel complained to Kesselring, "The swine isn't attacking!" Montgomery's refusal to exploit his victory allowed him to preserve his forces and accumulate supplies for the decisive offensive in October that came to be known as the Second Battle of El Alamein.