First Battle of El Alamein
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseEl Alamein was a small railway town on the Egyptian coast that was chosen by British Commander-in-Chief Claude Auchinleck to be the main defensive position against the mid-1942 offensive conducted by Erwin Rommel. Auchinleck had chosen the location largely because of the Qattara Depression to the south, which made any attempt to out-flank the Allied defensive lines unfeasible as the Axis forces would have to venture far south into the Sahara Desert. Two additional defensive positions to the south, Bab el Qattara southwest of the Ruweisat Ridge and Naq Abu Dweis at the edge of the Qattara Depression, completed the Allied line, although these two additional positions were far less prepared.
ww2dbaseIn the rear, British civilian offices in Cairo, Egypt, having heard of the string of defeats at Gazala, Tobruk, and Mersa Matruh, began burning papers. Auchinleck also gave orders to expand defensive structures at Alexandria and Cairo, while flooding certain areas of the Nile River Delta, in preparation of Axis penetration beyond El Alamein.
ww2dbaseWhile the Allied leadership prepared for further defeat, the Axis leadership was ready for a major victory. Italian leader Benito Mussolini, for example, flew to Libya for the expected triumphant entry into Cairo.
ww2dbaseHaving secured the Mersa Matruh region, Rommel gave his orders to advance, reaching the El Alamein area on 30 Jun. Although the Axis troops were tired and supplies were low, Rommel believed that he had the momentum on his side, especially as the morale on the Allied side was low. On 1 Jul, at 0300 hours, German 90th Light Division began to advance for El Alamein; it was to march east past El Alamein and then turn northeast to envelope the garrison, while Italian troops were to launch an attack on the western perimeter of the Allied position. The German 90th Light Division was initially successful, but quickly became pinned down when it came in contact with the South African 1st Division. Meanwhile, German and Italian tanks moved toward the southern end of the line to protect the right flank of the offensive; this movement was also slowed, first by a sandstorm and then by air attacks. At 1000 hours, tanks of the German 21st Panzer Division reached Deir el Shein west of Ruweisat Ridge and engaged the Indian 18th Infantry Division, which had just arrived from Iraq on 28 Jun; initially the Indian troops held their ground with artillery and several tanks, but this position would be overrun in the evening. During the fighting at Deir el Shein, tanks of the British 1st Armoured Division moved in to reinforce the Indian 18th Infantry Division, and drove off tanks of the German 15th Panzer Division south of Deir el Shein. In the early afternoon, German 90th Light Division briefly freed itself from the South African 1st Division and continued to move eastward, but was quickly pinned down again by South African artillery.
ww2dbaseOn the second day of the offensive, 2 Jul, Rommel abandoned the southward sweep and ordered the German tanks to attack eastward toward Ruweisat Ridge to indirectly help the German 90th Light Division. Using a British defense formation nicknamed "Robcol", the Allied troops utilized concentrated artillery fire to counter German tank advances. This effective method held off the German attacks throughout the day, and by late afternoon two British armored brigaded arrived to drive back the German tanks. Overnight, defensive positions around Ruweisat Ridge were reinforced.
ww2dbaseOn 3 and 4 Jul, tanks of the Italian Ariete Division led an attack on Ruweisat Ridge, giving the German tanks time to replenish. The Italian tanks made initial progress, but again made little progress in the face of the "Robcol" defense followed by British armored counterattacks. The British Royal Air Force also played an important role today in halting Axis advances, having flown over 780 sorties on 3 Jul and 900 sorties on 4 Jul. The two days' actions caused serious casualties on the Ariete Division: 531 men (350 of whom were taken prisoner), 36 pieces of artillery, 6 tanks, and 55 trucks were lost. Faced with heavy losses, Rommel ordered the Axis forces to remain on the defensive until supplies could reach the front lines. Further frustrating him, Allied aircraft frequently attacked the supply line, making the already stretched supply lines even more fragile.
ww2dbaseWhile the Axis forces waited for further supplies before making another assault, the Allies received reinforcements: the Australian 9th Division arrived at the northern end of the line on 4 Jul. On 8 Jul, Auchinleck ordered the new British XXX Corps commanding officer Lieutenant General William Ramsden to capture the low ridges at Tel el Eisa and Tel el Makh Khad, and then move his tanks south toward Deir el Shein while sending raiding parties west toward the airfields at El Daba. These attacks were planned to be launched on 10 Jul. On 9 Jul, the Indian 5th Infantry Brigade reinforced the position at Ruweisat Ridge.
ww2dbaseAt 0330 hours on 10 Jul, the Australian 26th Brigade attacked Tel el Eisa following an artillery barrage. The Australians captured the position after overrunning the positions held by Italian and German troops, taking 1,500 prisoners. In the late morning, South African troops captured Tel el Makh Khad. In the afternoon, tanks of the German 15th Panzer Division and the Italian Trieste Division counterattacked, without success, against the Australian positions. At dawn on the next day, 11 Jul, infantry of the Australian 24th Battalion and tanks of the British 44th Royal Tank Regiment attacked the western end of the Tel el Eisa hill which was known as Point 24, capturing it in the early afternoon, and then the unit went on to withstand Axis counterattacks for the remainder of the day. Meanwhile, a column of Allied tanks and motorized infantry conducted a raid at Deir el Abyad, leading to the surrender of a battalion of Italian troops before the raid was stopped at the Miteirya Ridge. On 12 Jul, the German 21st Panzer Division attacked in the Tel el Eisa region, but it was repulsed 2.5 hours later; this failed attack caused 600 German casualties. The division launched another attack on the following day, this time driving Australian troops out of Point 24, but again heavy casualties were incurred. On 15 Jul, Axis forces attacked again, gaining no ground. On 16 Jul, the Australians launched an attack of their own on Point 24, but they failed to retake Point 24, calling off the offensive after suffering 50% casualties. The fighting in the Tel el Eisa region quieted after the Australian attack.
ww2dbaseRealizing that a number of Axis forces are tied down at Tel el Eisa, Auchinleck developed Operation Bacon to attack the Italian Pavia Division and Italian Brescia Division located across the Ruweisat Ridge position. The attack began at 2300 hours on 14 Jul with New Zealand 4th Brigade and New Zealand 5th Brigade attacking northwestward, capturing their objectives before dawn on 15 Jul, but leaving pockets of resistance behind them, which created havoc throughout the rest of the operation. The plan then called for tanks of the British 2nd Armoured Brigade to charge forward to exploit the situation while the British 22nd Armoured Brigade was brought up as a reserve force to assist any counterattacks that might be developed by the Axis forces against the newly gained positions. This plan failed as the tanks did not move forward due to communications issues, thus leaving New Zealand troops exposed. Meanwhile, Indian 5th Infantry Brigade attacked to the east of the New Zealand troops, gaining their objectives in the early afternoon with the help of tanks from the British 2nd Armoured Brigade. In the late morning, the British 22nd Armoured Brigade was discovered by the Ariete Armoured Division, but the British tanks repulsed the Italian attack.
ww2dbaseRommel dispatched German troops to Ruweisat Ridge to defend against the Allied attack. At 1500, German troops arrived at the area of action, and at 1700 a counterattack was launched against the exposed New Zealand positions. Tanks of German 8th Panzer Regiment attacked and destroyed the few anti-tank guns the New Zealand troops had, forcing the 380 defenders to surrender. The counterattack was halted at 1815 with the arrival of the British 2nd Armoured Brigade, and the Germans temporarily withdrew at sundown. Early on 16 Jul, the counterattack began again. Troops of the Indian 5th Infantry Brigade repulsed the first round of attacks in the morning, joined with tanks from the British 2nd Armoured Brigade around noon, and the joint force repulsed a second round of attacks in the afternoon.
ww2dbaseBefore dawn on 17 Jul, Australian 24th Brigade and British 44th Royal Tank Regiment attacked Miteirya Ridge, (nicknamed "Ruin Ridge" by the Australians, from the north. Initial attacks were successful, yielding 736 Italian prisoners of war, but a counterattack by the Italian Trento Division that materialized quickly forced the Australians to fall back after suffering 300 casualties.
ww2dbaseBy 20 Jul, Allied superiority in terms of materiel was apparent, with the Axis forces down to 38 German and 51 Italian tanks in working status. Auchinleck wished to take advantage of this brief window of opportunity, striking before broken down Axis tanks could be repaired and placed back into action. At 1630 hours on 21 Jul, New Zealand 6th Brigade attacked from south of the Ruweisat Ridge, quickly capturing their objectives in the El Mreir depression; in a repeated episode, British tanks failed to follow up, thus the New Zealand troops were now vulnerable to counterattacks. After dawn on 22 Jul, German 5th and 8th Panzer Regiments attacked, inflicting 900 casualties among New Zealand troops. As the tanks of the British 2nd Armoured Brigade finally approached, they were stopped by mines and anti-tank fire. Meanwhile, the Indian 161st Infantry Brigade attacked along the ridge toward Deir el Shein, taking the position briefly but was driven out after heavy close-range fighting. At 0600 hours, Australian 26th Brigade attacked Tel el Eisa and Australian 24th Brigade attacked Tel el Makh Khad; Tel el Eisa was captured with heavy losses by the afternoon. While the tanks of the British 23rd Armoured Brigade finally moved forward found themselves moving into a heavily mined field, and then they were struck by tanks of the German 21st Panzer Division at 1100 hours; by the time the British brigade withdrew, it was practically wiped out, with 40 tanks destroyed and 47 tanks damaged. In the evening, the Australian troops captured Tel el Makh Khad, but once again with heavy losses. At 0200 hours on 23 Jul, Punjabi 3/14th Regiment of the 9th Infantry Brigade of the Indian 5th Infantry Division attacked Deir el Shein in failure, largely because many troops became lost in the dark; a second attempt to attack by the division also resulted in failure, with the field commanding officer and many of his lieutenants killed in action. The series of Allied attacks between 20 and 23 Jul gained some territory, but heavy casualties were sustained; in addition, they failed to pin down and destroy the outnumbered Axis forces as Auchinleck had hoped.
ww2dbaseLate during the night of 26 Jul, Operation Manhood was launched as what would turn out to be the Allied final attempt to wipe out the Axis forces in Egypt. Australian 24th Infantry Brigade captured the eastern end of the Miteirya Ridge at 0200 hours on 27 Jul, and the British 69th Brigade moved through a gap opened by South African troops and captured Deir el Dhib by 0800 hours. However, support forces failed to show (the anti-tank units became lost in the darkness of the night, and tanks of British 2nd Armoured Brigade delayed their advance due to communications confusion), thus once again leaving the forward units exposed to counterattacks. A strong counterattack by German tanks quickly overran all positions the Allies had gained overnight, inflicting 600 casualties on the British and 400 casualties on the Australians. After several more days of static fighting, Auchinleck canceled Operation Manhood on 31 Jul.
ww2dbaseAt the end of the First Battle of El Alamein, the Allies suffered about 13,250 wounded, captured, missing, and killed (3,700 British, 4,000 New Zealand, 3,000 Indian, 2,552 and Australian), while the Axis suffered 17,000.
ww2dbaseRommel, who took on the risk of pushing on this first offensive at El Alamein without proper rest, was extremely disappointed with the stalemate. He placed the blame on the failure to achieve victory on the lack of supplies, the poor quality of equipment in his Italian units, and poor Italian strategic vision of the Italian High Command (but not the skill and bravery of Italian troops, which he had came to respect).
ww2dbaseAlthough the Allied forces had stopped the Axis offensive, the leadership also viewed it as a failure, as Auchinleck failed to decisively destroy the Axis forces despite possessing a far larger force. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke replaced Auchinleck with Lieutenant William Gott as the commanding officer of the British Eighth Army (he would die en route to taking command) and General Harold Alexander as Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command. As a consolation, Persia and Iraq were broken off from Middle East Command and were offered to Auchinleck to command, which he turned down.
First Battle of El Alamein Interactive Map
First Battle of El Alamein Timeline
|30 Jun 1942||Axis troops reached El Alamein, Egypt.|
|1 Jul 1942||German 90th Light Division began to advance for El Alamein, Egypt at 0300 hours; meanwhile, German and Italian tanks covered the southern flank. Allied troops in the area were a mix of British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, and South African nationalities. Axis forces suffered heavy casualties on this first day of assault.|
|2 Jul 1942||Erwin Rommel abandoned the southward tank sweep to have the tanks assist on the direct assault of El Alamein, Egypt, but not until the southern drive had already lost 2,000 men and 30 field guns.|
|3 Jul 1942||German 15th Panzer Division, German 21st Panzer Divisions, and Italian XX Motorized Corps attacked Ruweisat Ridge near El Alamein, Egypt, making little progress. British aircraft flew 780 sorties on this day against the Axis offensive.|
|4 Jul 1942||Axis tanks continued the attack on Ruweisat Ridge near El Alamein, Egypt, making little progress; British aircraft flew 900 sorties on this day against the Axis offensive. The Allies, believing the Axis forces had lost their initial momentum, launched a limited offensive with elements of the South African 1st Division and New Zealand 2nd Division toward the Ruweisat Ridge.|
|5 Jul 1942||The battlefields near El Alamein, Egypt entered a period of relative lull as Axis forces halted due to lack of supplies and the Allied forces planned for a counter offensive.|
|8 Jul 1942||British General Claude Auchinleck ordered an attack on Tel el Eisa and Tel el Makh Khad near El Alamein, Egypt.|
|10 Jul 1942||Near El Alamein, Egypt, Australian 26th Brigade captured Tel el Eisa ridge and South African troops captured Tel el Makh Khad. Elements of the German 15th Panzer Division counterattacked the Australian positions in the afternoon without success. Meanwhile, New Zealand troops overran and destroyed the German 621 Radio Interception Company, thereby depriving Erwin Rommel of an essential means of gathering important intelligence on British 8th Army movements.|
|11 Jul 1942||Australian 26th Brigade infantry and British tanks attacked Point 24 near El Alamein, Egypt, capturing it in the early afternoon, and then went on to successfully defend against Axis counterattacks. Meanwhile, a column of Allied tanks and motorized infantry raided Deir el Abyad, capturing about 1,000 Italian troops.|
|12 Jul 1942||German 104th Infantry Regiment attacked Allied troops in the Tel el Eisa ridge region near El Alamein, Egypt; the German attack was driven off after it suffered 600 casualties.|
|13 Jul 1942||Tanks of German 21st Panzer Division attacked Allied troops in the Tel el Eisa ridge region near El Alamein, Egypt and at a nearby South African position, driving Australian troops out of Point 24 at a heavy cost.|
|14 Jul 1942||The First Battle of Ruweisat Ridge began at 2300 hours, under cover of darkness. It began well with the Indian (5th Brigade) and New Zealand infantry (4th Brigade and 5th Brigade) overrunning two Italian divisions, but unbeknown to them had inadvertently bypassed a group of German tanks as well as a few German infantry positions.|
|15 Jul 1942||New Zealand 4th Brigade and 5th Brigade captured the western end of Ruweisat Ridge near El Alamein, Egypt before dawn; without tank support, however, they suffered heavy casualties as German tanks repeatedly attacked, overrunning several positions by dusk and capturing 730 prisoners. At the eastern end of the ridge, Indian 5th Infantry Brigade, with British tank support, captured several Axis positions.|
|16 Jul 1942||Australian 24th Battalion attacked Point 24 near El Alamein, Egypt in failure, suffering 50% casualties. Meanwhile, German tanks attacked along the Ruweisat Ridge, unable to break the lines held by Indian 5th Infantry Brigade, British 2nd Armoured Brigade, and British 22nd Armoured Brigade.|
|17 Jul 1942||Australian 24th Brigade and British 44th Royal Tank Regiment, supported by RAF fighters, attacked Miteirya Ridge (also known as Ruin Ridge to Australians) between Tel el Eisa and Ruweisat near El Alamein, Egypt; the offensive initially overran the line held by Italian Trento Division and Italian Trieste Division, but would ultimately be driven back by German tanks and Italian Trento Division.|
|19 Jul 1942||British cruisers HMS Dido and HMS Euryalus and four destroyers bombarded Mersa Matruh, Egypt.|
|21 Jul 1942||New Zealand 6th Brigade launched an offensive south of Ruweisat Ridge near El Alamein, Egypt at 1630 hours, gaining several key positions early in the attack, but the British tanks failed to follow up as planned, thus leaving the forward units vulnerable to the counterattacks that would arrive on the next day.|
|22 Jul 1942||German tanks counterattacked the positions gained by the latest Allied offensive in Egypt, inflicting heavy losses among New Zealand troops. By the time the British 23rd Armoured Brigade arrived, it was bogged down by a minefield as it engaged in battle with German tanks; when the engagement ended, the brigade was practically wiped out.|
|23 Jul 1942||Indian troops launched an attack on Deir el Shein near El Alamein, Egypt in failure.|
|26 Jul 1942||After dark, Operation Manhood was launched by the British 8th Army in attempt to decisively defeat the Axis offensive in Egypt by striking at Miteirya Ridge.|
|27 Jul 1942||The initial hours of the Allies Operation Manhood offensive in Egypt near El Alamein was successful, but British tanks failed to follow up, thus the subsequent Axis counterattack at dawn inflicted heavy casualties on the exposed forward positions at Deir el Dhib and at Ruin Ridge. This marked the end of the First Battle of El Alamein, which saw 13,250 casualties on the Allied side and 17,000 on the Axis side.|
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George Patton, 31 May 1944