This Week in History

El Alamein (23 October-3 November)

Following the First Battle of El Alamein, which had stalled the Axis advance, General Bernard Montgomery took command of the British Commonwealth’s Eighth Army in August 1942. The Second Battle of El Alamein marked a significant turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. The battle lasted from 23 October to 3 November 1942, and began with the major offensive Operation Lightfoot.

With Operation Lightfoot, Montgomery hoped to carve two corridors through the Axis minefields in the north. Allied armour would then pass through the Axis defences and defeat Rommel’s German armoured divisions. Diversionary attacks in the south would keep the rest of the Axis forces from moving northwards.

Success in the battle turned the tide in the North African Campaign. Allied victory at El Alamein ended German hopes of occupying Egypt, controlling access to the Suez Canal, and gaining access to the Middle Eastern oil fields.



An extract from Campaign 158: El Alamein 1942

El Alamein: The Attack

The battle was set to begin on the night of 23 October. Lined up that night along the edge of the British minefields were XXX and XIII Corps. LtGen Leese’s XXX Corps was on the right with, from north to south, 9th Australian Division, 51st (Highland) Division, 2nd New Zealand Division, 1st South African Division and 4th Indian Division. These were in the line from the coast to the south of the Ruweisat Ridge. From there to the Qattara Depression was Horrocks’ XIII Corps containing 50th Division, 44th Division, 7th Armoured Division and 1st French Brigade. Lumsden’s X Corps, with 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions, was in the rear of XXX Corps near the coast. The recently arrived 8th Armoured Division was destined not to take part in the battle as a division. It had been split, with its 24th Armoured Brigade under the command of 10th Armoured Division and the remainder of the division grouped together into a formation called ‘Hammerforce’ and placed under the command of 1st Armoured Division.

Montgomery’s final orders for the offensive, code named ‘Lightfoot’, called for three simultaneous attacks to be made. In the north, XXX Corps would penetrate the enemy line and form a bridgehead beyond the main Axis defence zone, advancing to a forward position code named ‘Oxalic’, then assist X Corps to pass through. In the south, XIII Corps would penetrate the enemy positions near Munassib and pass the 7th Armoured Division through towards Jebel Kalakh. The division was told not to get itself into a slogging match, but to preserve its strength for later mobile operations, its main task to threaten the enemy in order to keep his armour in the south. Finally, XIII Corps would use the 1st French Brigade to secure the Qaret el Himeimat and the El Taqa plateau. Both XXX and XIII Corps were then to begin the crumbling operations to grind down the enemy infantry and draw the Panzers onto the armoured divisions and the massed anti-tank guns. If the enemy armoured divisions failed to come forward to meet the challenge, 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions were to seek positions from which they could prevent the enemy from interfering with XXX Corps’ crumbling operations.

The main weight of Eighth Army’s assault was with XXX Corps. Four of its divisions were to attack Axis minefields and defences then help carve out two cleared corridors for the armoured divisions. On the right, 9th Australian Division would attack eastwards from Tel El Eisa; on its left, 51st Division would clear a path towards Kidney Ridge. Both of these divisions would cover the ground of 1st Armoured Division’s northern corridor through the enemy minefields. South of these divisions, 2nd New Zealand Division would clear towards the western end of the Miteiriya Ridge and 1st South African Division would attack across the main part of the ridge. These would then cover the southern corridor through the minefields for 10th Armoured Division. On the extreme left of XXX Corps, the 4th Indian Division would take no major part in the opening attack, but would make threatening and diversionary raids from the western end of Ruweisat Ridge.

The battle opened with a tremendous artillery barrage at 2140hrs on 23 October. At first the guns opened up on the known locations of all enemy gun sites with anti-battery fire. This fire then switched to the forward edge of the enemy defences. As the infantry attacked, the artillery laid down a rolling barrage in front of them, lifting by measured amounts as the infantry moved forward. For the first time in the desert, there were sufficient anti-tank guns protecting the infantry to allow all of the 25-pdr weapons to be massed together under centralized command in their proper role as field guns. Medium and heavy guns of the Royal Artillery were added to produce the greatest concentrated barrage since the First World War. Ammunition supplies were unrestricted allowing the guns to fire at a prodigious rate. In the following twelve days of fighting, the 834 field guns fired altogether over one million rounds, an average of 102 rounds per gun per day. The rates for the other guns were even higher; 133 rounds for the 4.5in guns and 157 for the 5.5in weapons.

The Desert Air Force added its weight to the bombardment by bombing known enemy gun positions and those German and Italian guns which returned fire. Specially equipped Wellington bombers also flew overhead, jamming the radio-telephony channels of the Axis forces in an effort to disrupt enemy communications. These measures effectively blocked off radio traffic for a period, adding to the confusion at Panzerarmee’s HQ as to the size and direction of the attack.

The four divisions of XXX Corps attacked together on a 16km front, each with two brigades forward. Each division had one regiment of Valentine tanks from 23rd Armoured Brigade in support, except Freyberg’s New Zealanders who had the whole of 9th Armoured Brigade under command. The four formations advanced across a kilometre of no-man’s-land and then began their attack through six kilometres of enemy-held territory towards their objective, phase line ‘Oxalic’.

Nearest the sea, the Australians attacked with 26th Brigade on the right and the 20th Brigade on the left. Its third brigade, 24th Brigade, made noisy feints towards the coast in an effort to draw fire. The right brigade reached ‘Oxalic’ after some fierce encounters with the enemy, but 20th Brigade was stopped about a kilometre short by stiff resistance. The Australian Division endured the same pattern of events that was being experienced by other attacking divisions. The first minefield and line of defence was crossed with no great difficulty, just as Rommel expected them to be. But, as the two brigades pushed on into the main German defence line and the second minefield, enemy resistance increased.

On the left of the Australians, the Highlanders of 51st Division advanced on a two-brigade front with 153rd Brigade on the right and 154th Brigade on the left. Each brigade moved with one battalion forward and the other two ready to follow up. They set out to the stirring sounds of regimental pipers marching at the head of the battalions. In order to maintain the momentum, when each intermediate phase line was reached, the forward battalion paused while the battalion to its rear leapfrogged over into the lead. This procedure was repeated across other phase lines towards ‘Oxalic’. The Highland Division had the most difficult task of XXX Corps, for its final objectives covered a width double the front of its start line. There was also a larger number of defended localities to be overcome, each of which had to be eliminated before the advance could continue. Progress at first was good, but it was gradually slowed down by the large numbers of casualties that the division was suffering. By dawn the Highland Division had not penetrated the enemy’s main defence line. The delays and difficulties met during the advance meant that the mine clearance teams hoping to open a corridor for 1st Armoured Division were delayed.

The 2nd New Zealand Division began its attack on the western end of Miteirya Ridge also on a two-brigade front, with just one battalion at a time in the lead. LtGen Freyberg had decided to use his two infantry brigades to fight their way to the ridge before introducing the full strength of 9th Armoured Brigade to pass through and get beyond the high ground. He wanted to save as much of his weight as he could for this final stage. The plan worked well and the New Zealander infantry, despite heavy casualties, cleared a way through the minefields to allow Brig Currie to get his tanks on the crest of the ridge just before dawn. The coming of daylight, however, brought accurate enemy fire which forced the armour back on to the reverse slopes.

MajGen Pienaar’s 1st South African Division advanced in much the same method as the New Zealanders. The infantry penetrated the minefields and cleared a way for some armoured support and the division was able, with great effort, to get onto the eastern end of the ridge. Difficulty was met in trying to get vehicles and heavy weapons forward which limited the strength of the division’s positions. It had hoped to get beyond the ridge and allow armoured cars and the tanks of 8th RTR to exploit the left hand of XXX Corps attack, but enemy resistance forced it to dig in along the ridge. Just a little further south, Indian 4th Division made threatening raids near Ruweisat Ridge to confuse the enemy with regard to the length of the main British attack.

In the main, the first twelve hours of XXX Corps’ attack had been fairly successful. LtGen Leese had got his divisions through most of the minefields and well into the enemy’s positions. Best of all, he had troops on the Miteirya Ridge, something that Rommel would have been horrified by had he been on the spot. This success was not mirrored during the night by X Corps. Each of its armoured divisions had the responsibility of clearing its own minefield gaps. The clearance teams were to work closely with the infantry to open three gaps for its parent division, each wide enough for tanks. It was planned that these gaps would be completely swept and marked during the hours of darkness, allowing the armoured divisions to exploit southwards from XXX Corps final objectives before dawn. They would then be ready to meet the expected Panzer counter-attacks on ground of their own choosing. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

The corps had priority on all forward tracks from 0200hrs. Its clearance teams came forward as planned but then worked in confusing and hazardous conditions to locate and clear mines by hand and with mine detectors. The northern corridor for 1st Armoured Division was located close to the junction of the Australian and Highland Divisions. Results that night were mixed with one marked gap actually completed through as far as the forward infantry, but the others slowed down by pockets of enemy resistance close to their routes. The other gap for 10th Armoured Division was located in the New Zealand sector further south. Here there was a little more success with four routes marked right up to the Miteirya Ridge, although only one was actually usable at the western end. Immense traffic jams at the eastern end of all the routes prevented many tanks getting through to the forward edge of the penetration. Those that did were met with heavy anti-tank fire from many parts of the enemy main defences that were still intact. By dawn his fire forced those tanks that had made it onto the ridge back over the crest to hull-down positions in the rear. In some cases the armour made a complete withdrawal right back off the ridge. When daylight came, neither 1st nor 10th Armoured Divisions were in a position to exploit XXX Corps’ penetration.

Down in the south, Horrocks’ XIII Corps had put in its attack the previous night in concert with those in the north. MajGen Harding’s 7th Armoured Division met the same resistance and difficulties when trying to penetrate the minefields as had the divisions of XXX and X Corps. The division’s right flank was protected by an attack by 131st Brigade of 44th Division which ran into difficulties soon after the start. Only the first of two large enemy minefields was actually penetrated by XIII Corps before dawn, but the attack helped confuse the enemy in the southern sector of the line as did BrigGen Koenig’s diversionary moves against Qaret el Himeimat and Naqb Rala with his Free French Brigade.

When details began to filter into Montgomery’s HQ early in the morning, he was rather pleased with the preliminary results. The attacks had gone reasonably well, although X Corps did not have as many tanks forward through the minefields as hoped. Enemy resistance had been fierce as had been expected, but progress had been made all along the line. If the bridgehead could be strengthened as planned, crumbling attacks could begin to grind down Axis infantry and provoke a showdown with the Panzer divisions. The outcome of the battle would then depend on who could best endure the battle of attrition that would follow.

Further reading

ELI 98: British Commanders of World War II examines the key British commanders of World War II including Montgomery, and offers a fascinating insight into their personalities and their style of command.

ELI 118: German Commanders of World War II (1) Army is the first of two studies examining the careers and illustrating the appearance and uniforms of the German Army’s leading field commanders in World War II, including Rommel.

MAA 316: The German Army 1939–45 (2) North Africa & Balkans is the second of four volumes on the German Army of the Second World War in which Nigel Thomas examines the uniforms and insignia of the forces involved in North Africa and the Balkans.

MAA 368: The British Army 1939–45 (2) Middle East & Mediterranean provides a summary of the campaigns in this theatre of war, including ‘Lightfoot’ and is illustrated by photographs, and detailed colour plates of the wide range of uniforms worn in this area.

ESP 3: The Second World War – A world in flames sets El Alamein in the wider context of this horrific war, and brings the experience of war to life through a wealth of contemporary documentation, private writings and historical research.