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First Battle of El Alamein

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1stAlameinBritDefense

British soldier looking over the battlefield as his comrades take position

The First Battle of El Alamein took place near the El Alamein train station almost by the sea, between 1 and 27 July 1942. The British Commonwealth forces emerged victorious in the battle, having stopped Rommel's Italo-German forces in Egypt. The battle marked the end of several Axis victories obtained at El Gazala, Tobruk, Mersa Matruh, Fuka and elsewhere, and was the first in a series of Allied victories which would result in the liberation of French Tunisia from Axis forces and the invasion of Italy.

General Erwin Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika had been successfully fighting their way ever closer to the Suez Canal and the rich oil fields of Egypt. Italian "battleship convoys" under Admiral Angelo Iachino, and good solid intelligence from the Italian Military Information Service (Servizio Informazione Militare or SIM) obtained from the US Embassy in Rome[1], had greatly assisted in the Axis victories of Gazala, Tobruk, Mersa Matruh and Fuka. Unfortunately for Rommel, the deciphered daily reports to Washington coming from Colonel Bonner Fellers (US military attache in Cairo)[2], stopped almost a week after the fall of Tobruk. To make matters worse, his divisions were now running low on fuel. The scenario was soon set for a major Allied counteroffensive, that aimed to completely destroy the forward Italian divisions and the panzer and German motorized infantry divisions sent forward to assist.

El MreirEdit

On 29 June 1942, Rommel started a drive from Mersa Matruh that brought him to El Alamein. Many of his soldiers were worn down by two years of constant strain and combat but on 15th, 22nd and 27th July, the Brescia, Trieste and Trento succeeded in pinning the 2nd New Zealand, 5th Indian, 9th Australian and 50th British Divisions. These divisions were pinned between the Italian strong points and German armor and brought another series of disastrous defeats for the British commanders.

On 1 July 1942, the attack into El Alamein begin. However, the whole German advance was constantly attacked by Indians and South Africans, with the Indians managing to destroy eighteen German tanks and stopped the 21st Panzer Division. [3]

The Germans managed to overrun the Indians by the evening, however, and continued their advance. The 1st Armored Division clashes with the German 15th Panzer Division and drives them back west, somewhat hindering the German advance. Rommel ordered the offensive to be continued on 2 July 1942, but no significant gains were made and by the 5th, the Allies were regrouping and driving the Germans back.

On 3 July, the 4th New Zealand Brigade, supported by four artillery batteries, overrun the Ariete Armoured Division positions deployed inside a large depression. The Italians retreat to new positions, but lose 531 men (about 350 were prisoners), 24 artillery guns and six or eight tanks. In a report to his superiors, Rommel greatly exaggerates the Italian tank losses, in order to drive home the need for more German armour in North Africa. [4]

Determined to cut off the rest of the Ariete, the New Zealanders pushed on again on 5 July, but come under heavy fire from the Brescia Division at El Mreir.

The attacks by the New Zealand Division continued, and the remainder of the Indian 5th Infantry Division in the form of the 9th Brigade and 7th Motorised Brigade pushed north into Rommel's flank and in three days of fierce fighting almost reached Deir el Shein. A Maori battalion from the 2nd New Zealand Division made good progress in a night attack, but were unexpectedly counterattacked by the Pavia Division and forced to relinquish their gains. The New Zealand Official History confirms that "enemy forces seeping south threatened to outflank the Division" but reveals nothing more.[5]

During the initial fighting, Major Terence O'Brien-Butler of the 3rd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery displayed enormous control when surrounded by German armour, saving his battery from capture ajnd winning the Military Cross (MC) as a result.

Tel el EisaEdit

Having rebuilt his strength, Auchinleck attacked again on the night of 10/11 July at Tel el Eisa in the north with the newly-arrived 9th Australian Division from Syria. The German 621st Radio Intercept Company and 835 Italian troops from the Sabratha Division are captured by the Australian 2/48th Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Heathcote Hammer that advances under the covering fire from 100 artillery guns.[6]A battalion of the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment under Lieutenant-Colonel Ugo Scirocco is rushed forward to plug the gap and initially recovers part of the lost ground at Tel el Eisa and even takes 13 prisoners. According to the 2/48th Battalion war diary: "[a]t approx 2000 hrs enemy tks-number unknown-and inf attacked D Coy front. They overrun posn and enemy inf forced D Coy to withdraw and occupied their psn."

While the Bersaglieri suffers heavy losses attacking the Australians, their sacrifice is not in vain and allows the Italian XXI Corps to send forward an infantry battalion and a company of tanks from Major Gabriele Verri's 11th Armoured Battalion from the Trieste Division to the affected sector and seal of the Australian breakthrough.[7]

On 14 July, Colonel Erminio Angelozzi's 1st Battalion (85th Infantry Regiment) from the Sabratha Division, counterattack the forces dug in on Tel el Eisa and succeeds in regaining the position.[8]The defending battalion withdraws, but the 9th Division in the form of the 2nd/23rd Battalion attempts to recover Tel el Eisa on 16 July, overruning a good part of the Sabratha strongpoint before finally withdrawing. In his diary, Rommel concedes:"Next day, the 16th July, the British attacked again, but this time only locally. After intensive artillery preparation, the Australians attacked in the early hours of the morning with tank support and took several strong-points held by the Sabratha.“ Australian historian Mark Johnston reports that the determined Australian attackers only withdrew after losing half their number, "On 16 July, they were ordered to retake it and the rest of Tel el Eisa Ridge. After initial success, they suffered nearly 50 percent casualties and had to withdraw."

On 17 July, the 9th Division resumed the advance in the Tel el Eisa sector, capturing 736 Italians [9]from the Trento and Trieste Division and supporting 7th Bersaglieri Regiment, but the 3rd Battalion ( 62nd Trento Regiment) counterattacks with a column of tanks from the Trieste, capturing 200 troops from the 2nd/32nd Battalion.[10][11]Although the war diary of the 2nd/32nd Battalion describes the counterattack force as "German", the Australian historian Mark Johnston reports that German records indicate the Italians being responsible for capturing an Australian company that day.[12][13]Barton Maughan, Australia's official historian of the Second World War minimizes the Italian success writing that "two forward platoons of the 2/32nd's left company were overrun, 22 men were taken prisoner" and implying the attackers were German.

Ob 22 July, the Australian 9th Infantry Division finally secures Tel el Eisa after much fierce fighting that almost lasteda fortnight. In the final action, Private Arthur Stanley Gurney from the 2nd/48th Australian Infantry Battalion wins posthumously the Victoria Cross for taking out three machine-gun posts holding up the advance of his battalion. [14]

Ruweisat Edit

On 14 July and 22 July, Auchinleck attacks Ruweisat Ridge in the centre. In the fist attack, the New Zealand 2nd Division and 5th Indian Division attack under the cover of darkness and capture 2,000 Italians, but are unable to completely break though the Pavia and Brescia Divisions due to unexpected fierce resistance from the Italians.[15][16] With the arrival of daylight, reinforcements in the form of the 15th Panzer Division counterattack and capture 1,600 Allied troops, the majority from the 4th New Zealand Brigade. In the fighting, Captain Charles Upham from the New Zealand 20th Battalion, wins the Victoria Cross for the second time (winning his first VC during the Battle of Crete) after single-handedly taking out with a hand-grenade a German truck filled with enemy reinfocements.

Soon after the battle, the 4th/6th Rajputana Rifles ambush a strong German armoured column, accounting for a large number of tanks, armoured cars, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns.[17]

In the second battle, Colonel Gherardo Vaiarini's 65th Regiment along with Colonel Umberto Zanetti's 66th Regiment from the Trieste Division and the Brescia Division[18]play a decisive role in containing the attack of the New Zealanders long enough to allow the 21st Panzer Division to deliver a devastating counterattack.[19]In the German tank attack, the British 23rd Armoured Brigade comes under heavy fire and turning to avoid it, runs into a minefield. Colonel Gerhard Mueller's 5th Panzer Regiment, in what one observer described as "a real balaclava charge" destroys more than forty British tanks. The rest of the 21st Panzer finishes off the remainder of the British armoured brigade. The failure of British armour to reach the infantry in time results in the loss of 800 men. More than 2,300 New Zealanders were killed, wounded, or captured in the two battles. Both Vaiarini de Piacenza and Zanetti are killed in the fighting and posthumously decorated (Gold and Silver Medals respectively) for their bravery.[20]In the same action, Private Günter Halm from the the 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment wins the Knights Cross and a commission, for single-handedly putting out of action at least six British tanks before the captured Russian 76.2mm anti-tank gun he was manning was destroyed in the return fire.[21]

Miteiriya Edit

Auchinleck is determined to retain the initiative and orders another two strong attacks on the night of 26/27 July, planning to exploit through the supposedly demoralized Italian defenders. However, the attack against Miteiriya Ridge meets unexpected tough resistance from Italian machinegun and antitank gun teams and the attacks grounds to a halt with an infantry battalion forced to surrender when surrounded by armoured cars[22] from the Trieste Division, and with supporting British armour held-up in a minefield and unable to help the Australians.[23] The Australian 2/28th Battalion loses 65 men killed and 490 captured in the attack against the Trento and Trieste Divisions.

The 8th Army is now completely exhausted, and by 31 July Auchinleck orders an end to offensive operations and the strengthening of the defences to meet a feared counter-offensive.

AftermathEdit

With the Italians and Germans barely surviving the last British Commonwealth armour-infantry attacks, Rommel has no option but to orders his divisions to dig in and wait for reinforcements, giving the Germans and Italians much needed rest. Having waited 3 weeks for a triumphant entry into Cairo, Mussolini flies back to Italy, but not before visiting a British prisoner of war camp in Derna.

Rommel praises and decorates several German officers and soldiers and would admit that in the fighting to restore their broken lines, "the Italians were willing, unselfish and good comrades in the frontline. There can be no disputing that the achievement of all the Italian units, especially the motorised elements, far outstripped any action of the Italian Army for 100 years. Many Italian generals and officers earned our respect as men as well as soldiers."[24]

The British commanders are disappointed with the outcome, but the Axis advance on Alexandria (and then Cairo) has been halted. The 8th Army had sustained over 13,000 casualties in the fighitng (including 4,000 in the New Zealand Division and 3,000 in Indian 5th Infantry Division) but had taken 7,000 prisoners and inflicted heavy damage on the Axis forces in terms of men and armour.

ReferencesEdit

  1. "The Afrika Korps ... received a priceless cryptological gift, for which it was indebted to Loris Gherardi, an obscure Italian messenger, and the Italian Military Information Service (Servizio Informazione Militare, or SIM) ...Gherardi, an embassy employee for two decades, was doubling as an agent for SIM. One of his duties for two decades, was doubling as an agent for SIM. One of his duties was to carry enciphered telegrams from the embassy to the Italian telegraph bureau. Copies were made available to SIM, but they were no help without knowledge of the American cryptosystem. Gherardi solved that problem by gaining access to the military attache's safe." Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies: How Spies and Codebreakers Helped Shape the Twentieth Century, James Gannon, Potomac Books, Inc., 2001
  2. "...an important source of enemy intelligence was no longer available after June 29, the day Marsa Matruh was stormed. After that day, the American military attache in Cairo had stopped transmitting the radio messages that had been decrypted and had provided invalulable information about British strategy and tactics, since 1941." Nazi Palestine, Klaus-Michael Mallmann, Martin Cüppers, Krista Smith, Enigma Books, 2013
  3. http://comandosupremo.com/1elalamein.html
  4. "The fighting value of the Italian troops is so low that on 3.7., during an attack by inconsiderable enemy armoured forces, 360 men of Ariete Division were captured without having offered resistance worthy of the name. In addition the division lost 28 guns and 100 medium tanks." Defeat of Ariete Division
  5. "They were later counterattacked by the Italian Pavia Division and lost a part of their gains during a severe fight under a fading moon. This ended the British offensive; it had made some tactical gains, but had not succeeded in overthrowing the enemy. Both sides now settled down ." The Military Engineer, Volume 34, p. 523, Society of American Military Engineers., 1942
  6. "The advance to the next triangulation point on the ridge, Point 23, 2,000 yards further on, was not so easy against the now alerted defence but soon the rifle and machine-gun fire of the Italian defenders was drowned out by the drone of hundreds of shells. The guns of all three Australian field regiments and both South African field regiments as well as the 7th Medium Regiment, amounting to more than 100 25-pounder field guns, 4.5-inch and 5.5-inch medium guns in all, began firing their artillery programme in support of the attack". Pendulum Of War: Three Battles at El Alamein, Niall Barr, p.105, Random House, 2010
  7. "That afternoon Italian tanks counter-attacked both Australian battalions in an attempt to retake Hill 33 near the coast. Maj. Gabriele Verri, commanding 11th Armd. Bn. of the Trieste Motorised Division, sent a company of M13 and M14 tanks into the assault under Capt. Vittorio Bulgarelli." War in the Desert, Neil D. Orpen, p.367, Purnell, 1971
  8. "La controffensiva inglese premeva a Nord, dove la Divisione Sabratha si battè in una serie di assalti e contrassalti. Ad essa, oramai allo stremo, fu affidato il compito di riconquistare la quota di Tell el Elsa: l'azione fu condotta dal solo battaglione operativamente valido, il I dell'85°, comandato dal colonnello Angelozzi: la quota, dopo aspra battaglia, fu riconquistata. Fu l'ultima azione della Sabratha, che fu sciolta." 1942: L'Anno Decisivo pag 2
  9. "The following day, however, the Australians made their latest attempt to expand the Tel el Eisa salient. Initially successful, with the capture of 736 prisoners from 102a Divisione Motorizzata "Trento" 101a Divisione Motorizzata "Trieste" and 7º Reggiment Bersaglieri, the Australians were later counter-attacked and suffered aproximately 300 casualties." El Alamein: The Battle that Turned the Tide of the Second World War, Bryn Hammond, pg. 79, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012
  10. "Soon the companies had seized the enemy positions on the ridge, but, in the dark, the men of A Company overshot their objective, Point 22, by 1,500 yards. By the time they realised their mistake they were under such heavy fire that they could not withdraw. By 08.00 hours Italian tanks and infantry began to encircle their positions and eventually forced the entire company to surrender." Pendulum Of War: Three Battles at El Alamein, Niall Barr, p. 148, Random House, 2010
  11. "The attack began on 17 July at 2.30 am. The 2/32nd captured the Trig 22 and linked with the 2/43rd but the Germans resisted fiercely and counter-attacked with tanks. The 2/32nd suffered heavily: nearly half its number were either killed or wounded and nearly 200 became prisoners of war." 2/32nd Australian Infantry Battalion
  12. "There were some courageous efforts by Italian units against Australians at Alamein, but these have gone largely unnoticed in Australian writings ... In wartime and published Australian accounts of Alamein actions, it is not always possible to determine whether "the enemy" referred to was German or Italian ... However, the lack of credit probably derives more from a desire to inflate Australian achievements, and an unwillingness to acknowledge reverses against Italians." Fighting the Enemy, Mark Johnston, pp. 12-13, Cambridge University Press, 2006
  13. "However, the official history mentions the capture of only twenty-two men and implies they were captured by Germans; the battalion history states that 101 men were captured by Germans. German records indicate that Italians of the Trento Division were responsible." Fighting the Enemy, Mark Johnston, p. 13, Cambridge University Press, 2006
  14. "https://www.awm.gov.au/people/P10676840/ Private Arthur Stanley Gurney]
  15. "While the attacking brigades had been able to cut large gaps through the defences held by the Italian infantry, they had not been able to subdue all the resistance. Not surprisingly, most of the smaller outposts and defended localities had fallen easily but some of the larger posts had been bypassed during the night. The outposts which remained contained substantial number of anti-tank guns, machine guns and infantry. When daylight came, these posts were able to cover the area south of the ridge by fire and shot up any trucks foolhardy enough to drive forward." Pendulum Of War: Three Battles at El Alamein, Niall Barr, p. 131, Random House, 2010
  16. "Another night attack launched in confusion by a battalion of the 14th Punjabis toward Point 63 of Ruweisat resulted at dawn in the loss of the battalion and company commanders due to the spirited leadership of the 19th regiment of the Brescia." Rommel's North Africa Campaign, Jack Greene, Alessandro Massignani, p. 203, Da Capo Press, 2007
  17. "When the tanks returned after dusk, they ran into an ambush laid by the 4/6th Rajputana Rifles. The brigade netted a haul of twenty-four tanks, six armoured cars, eighteen anti-tank guns, six 88mm guns and one self-propelled gun." India's War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945, Srinath Raghavan, p. 132, Penguin, 2016
  18. "So the Eighth Army had failed to attain its objective in the second Ruweisat engagment as well. Despite massive bomber and artillery support, its spearhead failed to get at the Italians (Brescia Division/X Corps), smash them at the Dayr al Shein keypoint, and thus cause the entire Axis front to collapse." Germany and the Second World War: Volume 6, Horst Boog, Werner Rahn, Reinhard Stumpf, Bernd Wegner, p. 111, OUP Oxford, 13 Sep. 2001
  19. "A mixed German-Italian combat team held on and proved that not all Italians had lost the will to fight. Many of these men resisted to the last bullet. Their heroic stand gave Rommel time to concentrate his Afrika Korps against the 23rd Armoured Brigade." Rommel's Desert War: The Life and Death of the Afrika Korps, Samuel W. Mitcham, p. 122, Stackpole Books, 2007
  20. "Colonel Gherardo Vaiarini de Piacenza, commanding the 65th Trieste Infantry, was killed; he met his death with such gallantry that he was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal ... The Trieste's other infantry colonel, Umberto Zanetti, commanding the 66th, was also killed - on July 22nd. " Alamein 1933-1962: An Italian Story, Paolo Caccia Dominioni de Sillavengo, p. 83, Allen & Unwin, 1966)
  21. "Private Gunther Halm, a nineteen-year old gunner assigned to the 21st Panzer Division. This young man was responsible for knocking out six British tanks with his anti-tank gun, stopping a full tank brigade's assault and saving his division headquarters." The Last Interviews with Hitler, Paul David Cook, p. 221, Xlibris Corporation, 2002
  22. "The Bn was completely surrounded by ARMORED CARS which worked forward under cover of fire from enemy tanks further back, while 20mm, MMG and mortar fire kept the heads of our own troops well down. In this manner the enemy was able to cut off and dispose of sections and platoons one by one, until at 1030 hrs Bn HQ area was occupied by several ARMORED CARS and surviving personnel taken prisoner. An effort had been made to hinder the enemy armored vehicles by bringing Arty fire to bear on them before they dispersed. Unfortunately the only communication with Bde was by one wireless set WT repaired by Sigs, after about eight hours work. Messages reporting the situation were sent immediately once this set was capable of functioning, i.e., about 0930 hrs onwards. Last message was “All up, overrun!”." July 1942 Diary by Lieutenant S. A. Walker
  23. "Assuming that the Italians were demoralized and easy pickings was a mistake, which the 9th Australian Division, the heroes of the defense of Tobruk in 1941, learned to its regret. A night attack against the Trento and Trieste Divisions, after some initial success, was bloodily repulsed, one entire battalion of Australian infantry being overrun." Field Marshal: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel, Daniel Allen Butler, p. 352, Casemate, 2015
  24. Rommel: In His Own Words, Erwin Rommel, John Pimlott, Amber Books Ltd, 2014

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