On Aug. 15, 1942, when Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery took command of the British Eighth Army in North Africa, the British forces held a precarious defensive line based on El Alamein, Egypt, a way station 100 kilometres west of Alexandria. If that city fell to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the Germans would wrest control of Egypt and potentially the Suez Canal from Britain.
At 54, Montgomery had been a soldier since 1908. He was wounded and decorated for valour in the First World War, led a division through the fall of France in 1940, and spent the next two years in a key training role that he claimed provided the basis of knowledge leading to all his future success. A widower and ascetic who neither smoked nor drank, Montgomery was a stern taskmaster and self-confident to the point of egotism.
Sizing up the situation at El Alamein, Montgomery realized this was to be a test of his personal philosophy that called for “decision in action and calmness in the crisis.” From intelligence intercepts, Montgomery knew that Rommel hoped to draw the British into the kind of mobile battle of armour against armour that the Afrika Korps excelled at. Montgomery ordered his commanders to fight defensively and not be drawn. He also carefully built up a material superiority that saw 1,200 British tanks arrayed against Rommel’s 530. By early autumn, Rommel realized it was the Germans who must go on the defensive. He created an elaborate line 8 kilometres deep that was protected by 400,000 mines and expertly covered by well-sited anti-tank guns.
On Oct. 23, with Rommel recuperating from illness in Germany, Montgomery unleashed a massive nighttime artillery barrage that saw thousands of guns simultaneously shelling the defenders. British infantrymen and engineers advanced into the minefields and cleared two corridors through which tanks could pass. For two days, the battle raged inconclusively. Montgomery shifted the main effort to where the Australians had hacked a salient into the German lines. On Nov. 2, a renewed offensive here gained momentum and after two more days of fighting, the German defensive line was cracked open. Two weeks of gruelling attritional battle resulted in 50,000 German casualties (30,000 being prisoners) for 13,560 British.
“Up to Alamein we survived,” wrote Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “After Alamein we conquered.”
If I were Montgomery, we wouldn’t still be here,” Field Marshal Erwin Rommel said as the Afrika Korps continued pressing against El Alamein in the late summer of 1942. He believed Montgomery would have withdrawn. Rommel was not given to retreats, yet he had little confidence of defeating the Eighth Army.
“When one comes to consider that supplies and matériel are the decisive factor in modern warfare, it was already clear that a catastrophe was looming on the distant horizon for my army,” he wrote.
Throughout his long military career, Rommel had proven a shrewd, sometimes brilliant, tactician and strategist. Like his nemesis Montgomery, he had been wounded and decorated in the First World War. In the interwar years, his unorthodox tactical theories attracted Hitler’s attention. Granted a Panzer command after the Poland invasion, he led a brilliant charge across France in May 1940. In early 1941, Rommel took the Afrika Korps to Libya to shore up the Italians. He swept the British back to Egypt in a stunning offensive marked by rapid decisions and sustained mobility that won acclaim from ally and foe alike. On June 22, 1942, Hitler made him, at 49, Germany’s youngest field marshal. By then, the Desert Fox dominated North Africa.
That changed abruptly only days later when, on July 1, the Afrika Korps struck the British defences at El Alamein. RAF air superiority, sandstorms and supply line shortages stymied Rommel’s advances, and a stalemate ensued. Pushed back on the defensive, Rommel expected the stalemate to persist long enough for a return to Germany to recover his health. On Oct. 23, while Rommel was gone, Montgomery struck first. Racing back to reassume command on Oct. 25, Rommel found that during the two previous days Montgomery had so battered the German forces that the situation was irretrievable.
On Nov. 2, he sought permission to withdraw. The following day, Hitler ordered him to stand fast. “As to your troops,” he wrote, “you can show them no other road than that to victory or death.”
Nevertheless, Rommel disengaged and a bitter retreat ensued that returned remnants of the Afrika Korps to Tunisia. Dogging along behind, Montgomery and his Eighth Army “Desert Rats” pushed Rommel back, like a team of plodding but determined fox hunters. No opportunity was permitted for Rommel to throw Montgomery off balance and regain a fluid situation. With the failure at El Alamein, Rommel accepted that Germany’s “one and only chance to overrun the British Eighth Army and occupy the east Egyptian desert at a stroke was irretrievably lost.”