The successes on the Alamein battlefield in July and September 1942 were, once again, kind of half-baked victories: Rommel’s drive to Alexandria and the Nile had been blunted, but the fact that his army still stood there meant there was a threat, whether this was a real one or not. This is the real meaning of the victory at El Alamein in October–November 1942; for the very first time in years, this was not an uncertain, temporary success. This was a real victory, the first that Britain could claim against the Axis forces and, as Churchill and other leaders clearly imagined, probably the last, with the invasion of the French North-West Africa just four days after the victory at Alamein, the United States had finally entered into the war. After Alamein there would not be a British victory again, no matter how crucial or meaningful the British contribution had been. Thereafter there would only be Allied victories: Tunisia; the invasion of Sicily in July 1943; the invasion and the surrender of Italy the following September; the seizure of the first capital city of the Axis – Rome, in June 1944; shortly followed by the landings in Normandy and the beginning of the decisive campaign in North-West Europe. El Alamein was back then, as it still is today, one of the most important British victories during the Second World War, and as such a decisive victory from more than one perspective.
After the war ended, and particularly in the last forty years, historians have argued over the real meaning of the battle of El Alamein; this is in fact their duty, since historians should analyse events (also taking hindsight into account) to put them into a more complicated, multi-faceted reality that weighs up all the facts, either known or unknown, at the time the events took place. There have been many criticisms, and in all of them there is at least a grain of truth. If we consider that, according to some authors, the battle of El Alamein should not have been fought at all, it is hard not to say that such a criticism is based on good reasons.
In fact, it is quite clear that with the Allied invasion of French North-West Africa Rommel might have been compelled to withdraw his forces from Alamein, on the very simple ground that his supply bases would have been directly threatened, and the battle might have been fought some place else without the hindrances and the difficulties of the Axis defence lines and minefields. Yet such a criticism, meaningful and reasonable as it is, is not free from a few flaws; there was no assurance, in the first place, that Rommel might have been compelled to withdraw, for the very simple reason that his forces were simply too far away from Tunisia and thus unable to intervene in any case. Since, as it did in fact happen, the Axis might have built a bridgehead in Tunisia to prevent its seizure from the Allies. Indeed, doubts may arise as to whether Rommel would have been authorised at all to withdraw his forces from Alamein (and one should keep Hitler’s order to ‘stand fast’ in mind in this regard).
There is also another point well worthy of further discussion; it is certainly true that to face Rommel’s army when and where it could take advantage of the defences built at El Alamein was a disadvantage for the Allied forces, with men having to open the way across minefields to fight an enemy well dug in to its defensive line; however, the opposite i.e. an open, fluid battle would also have been a disadvantage. The Germans, and to some extent all the Axis forces in the Western Desert, already had on many occasions proved their superiority when fighting battles in the open ground, where they could take full advantage of their supremacy in the fields of flexibility and manoeuvrability against the British, Commonwealth, Imperial and Dominion forces. There had been just too many cases in the past, last but not least a few months before at Gazala and Tobruk, when the numerically superior forces of the Eighth Army had been defeated simply because the Germans fully exploited the tactical advantages they had on the battleground. One should simply try and imagine what if the second battle of El Alamein had been fought reversing the two sides: the Germans facing Eighth Army’s attacks on a terrain of their choice, closer to their supply sources and, above all, not being pressed at all by the need to restore a defence line. Even though this is simply a matter of educated guesswork, one can easily come to the conclusion that the advantages given to Rommel and to his soldiers by the defences at El Alamein could hardly be matched by the advantages both would have really enjoyed if given freedom of manoeuvre and shorter (and more reliable) supply lines.
This leads directly to just another, if not the other, main criticism of the Alamein battle; which is how the battle was fought, or more precisely how Montgomery fought it. There are good reasons behind these criticisms; to sum up in a few words the overall style of command, tactics and doctrine of Field Marshal Montgomery it is easy to say that he was one good step ahead of the Allied commanders on the Western Front in 1918. His set-piece battles, fought with a strict top-down command system on the basis of detailed plans and with the generous support of every available kind of firepower, although successful they might have been, were the direct descendant of those battles fought in the last stage of the First World War, but were also millions of miles away from the evolution that the German Army had brought into mechanised warfare since May 1940. In fact, he was hardly ever able to match the performances of his enemy when the battlefield turned into a fluid one, without defence lines, facing the need to improvise and make concerted use of the initiative. However, this was to be Montgomery’s key to the success at El Alamein; even though he managed to largely improve the conditions of his own units, he was perfectly aware of the differences that existed on the actual performances between the Eighth Army and Rommel’s Panzer Army Africa. Therefore, the decision to fight at Alamein in a way which compelled Rommel to use his own tactics and doctrine (of counterattacking the enemy to prevent a breakthrough) in a way that turned them into an advantage for the Eighth Army, eventually proved decisive and largely contributed to success on the battlefield.
This does not mean, on the other hand, there were no shortcomings or problems at all; the fact that the remnants of Rommel’s army could escape from El Alamein and withdraw all the way to Tripoli and Tunisia does remain point easy to criticise. Here, too, there are many factors to take into account; on the one hand it is true that Montgomery’s forces were largely superior numerically, in particular if we consider the armoured units, and enjoyed a far greater allowance of supplies than those left under Rommel’s command did. From this very point of view, Montgomery’s excessive use of caution, which one can easily presume was the direct consequence of his lacking both
the time and the opportunities to prepare a set-piece battle with an adequate plan and large stocks of supplies, certainly allowed Rommel to evacuate what was left of his Panzer Army Africa back to Tunisia, where it would stand and fight for some three months. Yet, there are other factors to be taken into account; Eighth Army’s units were tired and, in many ways, no less worn than their German counterparts since most of the casualties were
suffered by the frontline units. Also, the more Rommel withdrew back west, the more the Eighth Army moved away from its own supply sources, which certainly made a full-speed pursuit harder than one can actually imagine. That is without taking into account the changes that were to take place after the end of the battle.
El Alamein was in fact a turning point, from many perspectives. One of its consequences was the change in the balance that so far outlined the composition of the Eighth Army in the Western Desert campaign; since Alamein there were more British than Commonwealth, Imperial and Dominion forces than there had ever been in the Western Desert. After Alamein the latter would shrink even further; the Australian forces, after some two and a half years of battle in the Western Desert, were eventually withdrawn and sent back home. Both the New Zealand and the South African divisions were reorganised, and the role the British units played thereafter became greater and greater. This was a turning point in the British imperial defence system, which would no longer be the same since El Alamein; after Dunkerque, the British Army had eventually been rebuilt and its combat efficiency somehow restored. Since then the main weight of the battle was returned to it, both in Italy and – to a much larger extent – in North-West Europe. The same also happened on the other side; because of the destruction of most of the Italian units at El Alamein, which had supplied the bulk of the Panzer Army Africa infantry, and the eventual withdrawal from the Italian colony of Libya to Tunisia, the last stage of the North African campaign was fought with a greater proportion of German troops than before, and also under direct German control. As it happens, detractors of both the Alamein battle and of Montgomery’s command skills have all too often forgotten a key aspect of both the battle and of its aftermath; the role that the destruction of the Italian forces, and the eventual surrender of the last strip of Italian-held land in Africa were to mean for the wider theatre of war.
Well before the disaster of Stalingrad (which many now see as the real turning point of the war), the defeat at Alamein and the events that followed caused a tear in the German–Italian alliance, and it was not mere chance that Italy’s eventual invasion and surrender followed less than four months after the end of the North African campaign. Even though the Italians were to lose even more men during the Stalingrad battles than they did at El Alamein, it was eventually the loss of Libya and the bulk of its armoured and mechanised units – not incidentally deployed in the Western Desert – that marked the end of the last combat capabilities (and willingness) of the Italians. And it is not a sheer coincidence that, some seventy years on, Italy is, just like Britain, the one country where the memory of the battle is more vivid and clear than anywhere else, but for quite different reasons.
Extracted from Battle Story: El Alamein 1942 by Pier Paolo Battistelli