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Second Battle of El Alamein
The Battle of Alamein, or more correctly the Second Battle of El Alamein, marked a significant turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. The battle lasted from October 23 to November 3 1942. 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 from Claude Auchinleck in August 1942. Success in the battle turned the tide in the North African Campaign. Some historians believe that the battle, along with the Battle of Stalingrad, were the two major Allied victories that contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
By July 1942 the German Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel had struck deep into Egypt, threatening the British Commonwealth forces' vital supply line across the Suez Canal. Faced with overextended supply lines and lack of reinforcements and yet well aware of massive Allied reinforcements arriving, Rommel decided to strike at the Allies while their build-up was still not complete. This attack on 30 August 1942 at Alam Halfa failed, and expecting a counterattack by Montgomery´s Eighth Army, the Afrika Korps dug in. After six more weeks of building up forces the Eighth Army was ready to strike. 200,000 men and 1,000 tanks under Montgomery made their move against the 100,000 men and 500 tanks of the Afrika Korps.
With Operation Lightfoot, Montgomery hoped to cut two corridors through the Axis minefields in the north. Armour would then pass through and defeat the German armour. Diversionary attacks in the south would keep the rest of the Axis forces from moving northwards. Montgomery expected a twelve-day battle in three stages — "The break-in, the dog-fight and the final break of the enemy."
The Commonwealth forces practised a number of deceptions in the months prior to the battle to wrong-foot the Axis command, not only as to the exact whereabouts of the forthcoming battle, but as to when the battle was likely to occur. This operation was codenamed Operation Bertram. A dummy pipeline was built, stage by stage, the construction of which would lead the Axis to believe the attack would occur much later than it in fact did, and much further south. To further the illusion, dummy tanks made of plywood frames placed over jeeps were constructed and deployed in the south. In a reverse feint, the tanks for battle in the north were disguised as supply lorries by placing a removable plywood superstructure over them.
The Axis were dug-in along two lines, called by the Allies the Oxalic Line and the Pierson Line. They had laid around half a million mines, mainly anti-tank, in what was called the Devil's Garden .
The battle opened at 2140 hours on October 23 with a sustained artillery barrage. The initial objective was the Oxalic Line with the armour intending to advance over this and on to the Pierson Line. However the minefields were not yet fully cleared when the assault began.
On the first night, the assault to create the northern corridor fell three miles short of the Pierson line. Further south they had made better progress but were stalled at Miteirya Ridge.
On October 24 the Axis acting commander, General Georg Stumme — Rommel was on sick leave in Austria — died of a heart-attack while under fire. After a period of confusion while Stumme's body was missing, General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma took command of the Axis forces. Hitler initially instructed Rommel to remain at home and continue his convalescence but then became alarmed at the deteriorating situation and asked the Desert Fox to return to Africa if he felt able. Rommel left at once and arrived on October 25.
For the Allies in the south, after another abortive assault on the Miteirya Ridge, the attack was abandoned. Montgomery switched the focus of the attack to the northern flank, along the coast, where the Australian 9th Division, under Major General Leslie Morshead, began the first of many night attacks, intended to divert attention from the main area of attack. The first night attack, on October 25-26 was a success and Rommel´s immediate counter-attack failed. By this stage the Allies had lost 6,200 personnel, against Axis losses of 2,500, but while Rommel had only 370 tanks fit for action Montgomery still had over 900. There were many small actions including a notable last stand in the defence of Outpost Snipe but, by October 29, the Axis line was still intact.
Montgomery was still confident and prepared his forces for the main assault, known as Operation Supercharge. The endless small operations and attrition from attacks by the Allied air forces had by then reduced Rommel's effective tank strength to only 102. The second major Allied offensive of the battle was along the coast, initially to capture the Rahman Track and then take the high ground at Tel el Aqqaqir. The attack, led by the New Zealand 2nd Division under Major General Bernard Freyberg, began on November 2 1942. By the 3rd Rommel had only 35 tanks fit for action. Despite containing the Allied advance, the pressure on his forces made a retreat necessary. However the same day Rommel received a "victory or death" message from Hitler, halting the withdrawal. But the Allied pressure was too great, and the German forces had to withdraw on the night of November 3-4. By November 6 the Axis forces were in full retreat and over 30,000 soldiers had surrendered.
The battle was Montgomery's greatest triumph. He took the title "Viscount Montgomery of Alamein" when he was raised to the peerage.
The Torch landings in Morocco later that month marked the effective end of the Axis threat in North Africa.
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