November 1, 1942. How do you solve a problem like Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox? What if you just held him in place 1000 miles from his supply base, where he can’t maneuver or get away, and just beat him to death with artillery and tanks? Today, British General Bernard Montgomery will launch Operation Supercharge, the coup de grace of the Battle of El Alamein. On the sands of Egypt, the German Army is about to get beaten old school.
By mid-1942, Erwin Rommel had established himself as the British Army’s nemesis in the North African desert. With two Panzer Divisions, some German infantry units, and a brace of Italian armored and motorized divisions – the vaunted “Afrika Korps” - he had given Churchill’s soldiers a great deal of trouble in the swirling battles across the bleached sands and dusty trails. Throughout 1941 and 1942, his columns had raced across the desert, usually quicker and more flexibly than their lumbering British counterparts. Finally, he won a great victory at Gazala in the summer of 1942 which resulted in Allied forces retreating deep into Egypt. Rommel followed, keen on achieving the splendid triumph he had hoped for when he began this campaign. Visions of the Pyramids danced in his mind.
The North Africa theater was a weird one. As long as Britain fought World War II as the only Western Ally standing against Germany, North Africa was the only place where they could actually fight the German Army on something like equal footing. The two sides danced back and forth across eastern Libya – owned by Italy – and Britain’s protectorate of Egypt. It was a war defined by a lack of civilian populations, urban centers, or large obstacles, and this made it a campaign where mobility played a starring role. The tank, the armored car, and the transport truck were the key weapons of the North African desert. The vast distances and the wide-open spaces allowed for enormous maneuvers, surprise attacks, and a freewheeling style of warfare that was extremely well-suited to the German methods of war in contrast to the British.
It was in Africa that Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” forged his reputation. Rommel is to this day the most famous German general of World War II, even if his reputation is highly inflated – mainly by the British, who had to deal with him. Rommel was certainly a talented and intuitive leader of mobile strike forces and armored troops, and he may have been one of the most aggressive (bordering on reckless) commanders of the war. But Rommel is the child of two myths. The British, constantly defeated due at least as much to their own failing as to Rommel’s “genius,” painted him as a near-demonic mastermind to cover up for their own shortcomings. The Nazi propaganda department of Joseph Goebbels, eager for propaganda heroes in an age where reputations were being destroyed daily in the Soviet Union, propped up Rommel as a charismatic, legendary hero in the German mold. It’s not surprising that these two myths have combined into a greater myth of Rommel the Great that still persists to this day.
The actual Rommel was more complex, and certainly had his share of flaws. Rommel was immensely ambitious, a glory hound, which alienated many of his fellow officers; he had used early connections with Hitler to gain promotion well ahead of his peers. One historian is fond of saying that Rommel probably never should have risen above the command of a battalion, and though that’s a bit harsh the point is still valid. His vision was extremely limited, and one of his biggest blind spots was logistics. Rommel was famously, irredeemably bad at factoring supply and maintenance into his battle plans, and if the North African Desert’s first important quality was its suitability for maneuver warfare, its second quality was the massive importance of supply and logistics.
This was the law Rommel ignored when he pursued the retreating British into Egypt in July 1942. From the very beginning of the desert war, Rommel had been constrained by supply problems. Germany already had a great shortage of oil, and all of Rommel’s fuel and munitions had to be carried across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy, unloaded in Libya, then motored forward for hundreds of miles to reach his frontline. The farther Rommel got from his supply base, the more fuel his trucks consumed pushing those supplies forward. There was also the eternal problem of Malta, the British-occupied island that sat squarely astride Rommel’s line of supply from Italy to Africa; British planes operating from Malta sunk many ships carrying Rommel’s replacement tanks, equipment and precious fuel. The farther Rommel went into Egypt, the more the iron hand of logistics sucked him down like quicksand.
The British, in contrast, had been retreating closer to their supply lines, and help was on the way. The Germans were in a life-and-death struggle against the Soviet Union, where almost 90% of their army was located; in contrast, the British had made North Africa Priority Number One and were shipping every spare unit there. The reason was simple: if Rommel somehow managed to capture Egypt, he wasn’t just snapping up the Pyramids and King Tut’s tomb. He would cut the Suez Canal, the vital lifeline that supplied all British forces in the Mediterranean, in addition to threatening the critical Middle Eastern oil fields that supplied the Allied war effort. Rommel was touching a nerve, and needed to be stopped.
The British were shipping everything they had to Egypt, and the result was that the 8th Army became a truly multinational force on the eve of the Battle of El Alamein. Besides regular British rank and fire, there were Australian, South African, New Zealand, Indian, Polish, Greek, and Free French forces assembling to stop Rommel. Large numbers of aircraft began to arrive to beef up the Desert Air Force. FDR stripped several American armored divisions of their brand-new Sherman tanks and sent them to Egypt for the British, where at this point in the war they were vastly superior to the German vehicles. Finally, the British found a new commander.
Bernard Montgomery is one of World War II’s most controversial command figures, the unfavorite especially of Americans who had to work with him later. Montgomery had a great deal in common with Rommel – he was immensely arrogant, a publicity-seeker, unpopular with other British generals and a thorny man to work with. These have tended to overshadow his good qualities. “Monty” was hugely popular with the rank and file, a tireless worker, an irrepressible optimist, a magnificent planner and extremely aware of the needs of supply and logistics in a way Rommel never was. When Montgomery arrived and got to work, the average Tommy saw his standard of living rise remarkable, and soon morale was up across the board. Maybe they could beat Rommel after all.
Rommel, meanwhile, had begun to reap the fruits of his impatience. The Axis high command had encouraged him to stop at the Egyptian border. His troops desperately needed rest, reinforcements, and resupply. Every single higher commander was telling Rommel to stop, but the Desert Fox had always ignored his superiors when he wanted and saw no reason to begin listening now. He wouldn’t be Rommel otherwise. So he headed east – and east – and east – at a dizzying pace. The Afrika Korps had covered 350 miles in ten days. And then, just as they hit the brick wall, the leash drew them up short. Because they had run into El Alamein.
In sharp contrast to most of North Africa, the position near El Alamein offered almost no room for maneuver. In almost every other position in the western desert, a flanking movement to the south was possible to turn any battle of attrition into a dashing mobile duel. Instead, the El Alamein position was a bottleneck: the sea to the north near the village of Alamein, and the vast Qattara Depression to the south, which was a great expanse of sand dunes and salt marshes completely impassable by armored vehicles. It was here that the British 8th Army set up their defensive line on a series of ridges, and it was here that they began their great recovery. For Rommel to break the British at Alamein, he couldn’t encircle them or outflank them or sneak past them. He would have to go through.
Rommel, meanwhile, had run his supplies into the black. His men were exhausted, he had only 52 serviceable tanks, and he was so short on fuel that he could not have made it to Cairo if he wanted to. He still decided to attack – twice. At the First Battle of El Alamein in July 1942, and the Battle of Alam Halfa in August, Rommel tried and failed to use his old bag of tricks and maneuvers on the 8th Army. It didn’t work. He had come too far, too fast, with too little and the magic was gone. The Desert Air Force was overwhelming, the British artillery blasted apart his frontal assaults, several of his generals were killed trying to push the attacks forward, and above all the 8th Army was no longer scared of him. They had the calm hand of Monty to reassure them.
Montgomery represented a different style of warfighting to the flashy, flexible Rommel. Montgomery exemplified the British doctrine that had won the final victories in the First World War: the planned, phased, set-piece battle. Rather than maneuvering to encircle or destroy, his tactic was to grind his enemy down with overwhelming firepower, concentrated attack, and a decisive struggle of attrition. Instead of blitzkrieg tank attacks or dashing charges, Montgomery’s basic plan was to pin Rommel in place, bury him under high-explosive artillery and air power, then ram a column of Allied tanks down his throat. If maneuver is Rommel’s best friend, don’t let him do that. If surprise is his favorite element, keep the pressure so strong that he doesn’t get the chance to pull one. The British had been trying to fight the desert war Rommel’s way; this time, it would be the British forcing him to fight their way.
Rommel could have retreated, and probably should have. His ultimate losses had been light, and he had reinforcements and more tanks making their way slowly forward across a thousand miles of desert track. But he was in a pickle of his own making. The Afrika Korps was helpless in the middle of nowhere under a ceaseless stream of Allied planes that “literally nailed it to the ground,” killing its ability to maneuver. Current levels of supply were only covering 40% of minimum requirements, and most of his trucks and tanks were still short on replacement parts. His divisions were understrength, and still suffering attrition from British raids and air strikes. Bad rations, lack of potable water, and worst of all critical, priceless fuel. At one point during the Battle of El Alamein, Rommel’s army would only have a few days’ worth of fuel. It was entirely possible that Rommel was literally unable to retreat: he had had enough fuel to get into Egypt, but not enough to get out.
Throughout September and into October, Rommel and Montgomery both built up their forces as best they could, Rommel waiting for the strike he knew had to come at the El Alamein position. Rommel dug in, laid vast fields of mines, and hounded German and Italian high command for reinforcements. The problem, of course, was that if they couldn’t supply the men he already had how were they going to supply MORE? Just as important, the Germans were currently unable to supply their forces in Russia: they were pinned down in Stalingrad and southern Russia as surely as Rommel was “nailed to the ground” in Africa.
Rommel was facing slowly rising odds. The 8th Army now had 195,000 men and over 1,000 tanks, while Rommel only had 116,000 men and 547 tanks, many of which were inferior Italian models. The British had unrivaled air superiority, while German aircraft operated at extreme range from Greece and Libya. The Allies had the overwhelming weight of ammunition, fuel, and supply at their backs, while Rommel only had three days’ worth of fuel at the beginning of the Battle of El Alamein. Montgomery had Rommel tied down in front of a steamroller – but Rommel was, as always, a tough nut to crack.
The Second Battle of El Alamein began on October 23 at 2140 with a 1,000-gun barrage by the 8th Army. For five and a half hours they saturated the German and Italian defensive lines, each gun firing around 600 shells. This bombardment soon switched to individual targets to support the infantry. Any participant in the opening days of El Alamein probably remembered ceaseless rolls of explosions more than anything, as the moonlit night was illuminated like a clear spring day from the rattling of guns. It was like a high-tech remake of a World War I battle, because the artillery plastering was followed by waves of infantry. One German general described the opening whirlwind “as though a giant had banged his fist on the table.” The Germans could not respond with anything like equal fire, since trying to match the British drum-fire would have expended almost half their artillery ammunition in the first half-hour. The problem here was not German incompetence, but the supply issues that limited their choices in the first place.
Rommel, as central as he was to the whole desert campaign, wasn’t even in North Africa when the British attacked. This was purely by accident; he was back in Germany, pleading with Hitler and the high command for more men. He got an unsympathetic hearing, since the Germans were currently at the end of their tether in the much more critical front of Russia. By the time Rommel heard about the attack, his replacement – General Georg Stumme – had already been killed by a heart attack after a near-miss from a British ambush. The Afrika Korps would be headless for the crucial first period of the fighting.
Four full infantry divisions – the 51st Highland, 2nd New Zealand, 9th Australian, and 1st South African – piled into the enemy trenches, and the infantry fight was on. The infantry divisions would have to break through the Axis defenses before the armored divisions could be unleashed through the hole they had created. The next few days of fighting were marked by what Montgomery called “crumbling,” slowly wearing out the Axis infantry units in their dug-in positions along the desert ridges of El Alamein. It was tough, bitter work, with infantry-tank teams slowly grinding through one terrain position after another. Rommel’s minefields delayed progress and had to be cleared constantly, but the Allies tore deep chunks out of the Afrika Korps’ defenses. The 15th Panzer Division launched an early counterattack on October 25, saving a cut-off German regiment but at terrible cost - losing 88 of its 119 tanks. Out of only 234 German tanks in the Afrika Korps at the start of the battle, this was a disastrous loss of 40%, and the Allied tank divisions hadn’t even shown up yet.
Rommel’s return on October 25 raised Axis morale notably, but there was very little he could do to stop the bleeding. He managed to shift most of his remaining tanks to confront the likely site of Montgomery’s main attack, even though he knew that it was a one-way trip; the German tankers barely had enough fuel to get there, let alone do much maneuvering or fighting. A retreat was clearly going to be impossible with empty gas tanks. The Axis had to stop the British, or there would be no escape.
The fighting came to be concentrated around a few pieces of key terrain in the northern sector of the battle: “Kidney Ridge,” “Snipe Hill,” “Woodcock Hill.” It was a hopeless fight for Rommel. The new Sherman tanks were better by miles than the worn-out Panzer IIIs and light Italian tanks he had, the overwhelming infantry strength was chewing through his minefields and defenses, round-the-clock shelling and aerial bombardment smothered his troops under weight of steel and fire. The British were suffering casualties, including tank losses from dug-in German positions, but the steamroller was still grinding forward.
Of course, to the British it looked rather different. Your average Tommy, or Australian Digger, or Afrikaaner, or Kiwi, or Hindu trooper had to push forward against suicidal resistance, lethal ambushes, accurate fire and skillful defenses. To imply that this was a cakewalk would be to underrate the fighting ability of the German soldier and the lethality of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. But Monty’s boys were winning, slowly and surely. They had Rommel against the ropes, and this was no time to stop punching. By October 29, Monty was done toying around. He was ready to break through. It was time to send in the coup de grace.
Just before midnight on November 1, 1942, the British began with the usual hurricane: seven hours of air attack, three hours of artillery preparation. Then, as the sun peeked over the desert hills on November 2, came the sledgehammer: Operation SUPERCHARGE. Three complete armored divisions – 1st, 7th, and 10th – came stomping forward in two massive columns, 400 tanks strong. They were preceded by a drumfire barrage of high-explosive artillery, flanked on either side by artificial smoke. Plowing into the final German defensive line, they suffered heavily from antitank guns, mines, and local resistance, and by the end of the day 230 tanks had been erased from the Allied order of battle. SUPERCHARGE did not achieve the breakthrough Montgomery wanted.
But it had finished Rommel. His final armored reserves had been chewed up by Monty’s kneecapping blow, and by the end of the day he only had 35 tanks remaining. The Allied losses had been heavier, but they had destroyed any striking power Rommel had. Now the Afrika Korps began to fall apart. The pressure was too much. Soldiers began to surrender, while other men broke and ran for the rear. Rommel – immobile, nearly unsupplied, down to his last few tanks, and facing imminent destruction – decided to retreat. He began to pull his troops out of the frontline and prepare to save what he could of his broken army.
Then, on November 3, a bomb of a different kind went off in his headquarters. An order from Hitler arrived forbidding a retreat of any kind, and demanding that Rommel “stand fast…Despite his superiority, your enemy must also be at the end of his strength. As to your troops, you can show them no other road than the one that leads to victory or death.”
This order was typical Hitler to its core – the assumption that human will could triumph over the material – but it nearly doomed Rommel’s army. He obeyed the order as best he could, but another hammer blow on November 4 smashed what was left of the two Panzer Divisions that were the heart and soul of the Afrika Korps. The Italian units simply dissolved, with the Ariete Armored Division being surrounded and crushed by 8th Army’s tanks on November 3. It was time to run for it, no matter what. Rommel extricated what he could and blitzed west as fast as he could manage. Montgomery followed slowly, ponderously – but unstoppably.
The Battle of El Alamein was the turning point of World War II for the Western Allies. The Axis would have temporary success on occasion for the rest of the war, but never again would they manage to truly stop an Allied offensive for long. El Alamein demonstrated the ultimate truth of the Allies versus the Axis: when the cards came down, the Allies not only had far superior material resources, but they were far better at using them. Rommel had lunged into Egypt in defiance of logistics; Montgomery used logistics to smother him in fire and smash him with men and tanks. From now on, it would be a war of industries and nations, not of flashy generals and cool tactics.
The “Rommel Myth” is appealing to this day. The gallant commander, the brilliant warrior, the master of maneuver and deception. It’s nice. But that was no longer the way the world fought wars. Rommel had been nailed to the ground by air power, beaten in the face with artillery, and shown the future of warfare – and the ultimate fate of the Wehrmacht. The German warfighting doctrine, grounded in brilliant maneuver and lightning attack, encountered industrial mass production. At El Alamein, the “genius” Rommel had found himself trapped in the grip of the steel mill. And the machine won.