After the British attempt to penetrate Rommel's lines on July 27, 1942 had
failed, the Egyptian front settled into a more or less stagnant period for a
few weeks. During this period, outside of the constant artillery fire, night
patrolling, and usual air activity, little in the nature of active military operations
took place. Most of this time was utilized by both sides in preparing defensive
positions and building up strength in personnel, equipment, and supplies.
During the month of August the British reached a new high in morale. This
change in attitude was attributed by observers to three main factors. First, the
complete turnover which had taken place in the supreme command. General
Alexander, a World War I veteran, noted for his aggressiveness and the leader
of two brilliant actions of World War II, had replaced General Auchinleck as
High Commander in the Middle East. Now under Alexander and in direct command
of the British Eighth Army, was Lieutenant General Montgomery, a veteran of
the fighting in France in World War II, and a soldier's soldier. Second, the
quantity and quality of rations, which in the past had left much to be desired, had
increased to a point where the British Tommy was not the underfed and under-nourished
soldier that Rommel's troops had previously faced. Third, the British had
gained a much-needed and well-deserved rest.
The British, in particular, were very thorough in their plans for the anticipated
battle with Rommel's forces. About the middle of August it became evident, from
the nature of the position that the British were taking, that they did not
intend to attack, but instead that their strategy was based on the fact that
Rommel could and would. With this thought in mind, the British prepared their
position for defensive action only. By restricting themselves in this fashion, the
British hoped to be able to keep their armor from falling into antitank
ambush, similar to that which had caused their defeat a few weeks earlier. Since
they planned to remain on the defensive, the British were also able to site
their guns so as to have immediate antitank and artillery support, which had
been lacking in the earlier attack.
After the British command had committed themselves to the defensive, they
spared neither time nor labor to make certain that no possible contingency
could arise which would frustrate them. Every man had been instilled with the
feeling that he, and he alone, might mean the difference between victory and
defeat. The line that they would be defending was commonly known
as "Egypt's Last Hope"; with its fall, Egypt was lost. During the period
from the June 27 attack to the latter part of August, every conceivable
defensive position had been tested all along the entire line. Terrain
exercises and maneuvers were going on constantly, testing and improving the
defenses. All tanks had been moved in and out of pre-selected battle
positions, actually dug in, and placed in hull-down and gun-down positions. All
drivers and all gun crews were thoroughly familiar with their duties and
positions. Likely targets had been registered upon, and gun and tank crews
had gone to their positions in darkness.
Of Rommel's general plan little is known. It is known that he was preparing a
strong position and his armored strength increased in tanks, both German
and Italian. German and Italian parachute troops made their appearance on
this front, as well as elements of the German 164th Division. Despite continual
bombings by British and American planes, the port facilities at Benghasi,
Tobruk, and Matruh were still open, and through them, some supplies still
reached the forward elements. The railroad from Tobruk to Daba also remained
open, although traffic was severely hindered by the continual bombing by
Allied air reconnaissance showed that Rommel was regrouping his forces, with a
large part of the German and Italian infantry, and the Italian armor, identified
on the southern flank of his line, and with the bulk of the German armor
behind the center although in a position to join overnight a thrust on the
About August 25, the Axis air force began to build up its strength in
The British general plan was to prepare several contiguous fortified
areas along the coast and to hold them at all costs, and also to cover the high
ground of Ruweisat Ridge and the ridge immediately south of it. They also
planned to hold the New Zealand "box" covering the western edge of Deir El Hima. The
armor was to take up defensive positions along the foot of Alam El Haifa
escarpment and maintain this position, thereby intending to force the German
armor to fight them on ground chosen by the British. The southern sector was
to be defended by two parallel mined areas extending to Himeimat, which is
along the edge of the Qattara Depression. The bulk of the British armor was to
be held in the south-central sector and well behind the minefields. In support of
the infantry defending the fortified areas was an armored brigade (British
brigade approximates U.S. regiment). Portions of the light armor and elements
of the motor brigade patrolled and guarded the minefields. The light armor on
the south would harass any advance, and the armored reserve (another armored
brigade) was to be held in readiness to the east.
In the absence of any specified missions, the Royal Air Force, combined
with the American Air Force, was to bomb continually and strafe the Axis
ports, supply lines, and troop concentrations day and night.
British Intelligence fully expected the Axis offensive to get underway during
the full moon on the night of August 25/26. For some reason, said by some
to be a lack of fuel, the attack did not materialize at this time. However, on the
night of August 30/31, just prior to midnight, Rommel launched the long-expected
attack which he hoped would bring him victory, and drive the British from North Africa.
OPERATIONS: AUGUST 31
Rommel's attack on the strongly prepared British El Alamein line
commenced at 2320, August 30. At that time German engineers
and infantrymen commenced clearing a passage through the western
section of the British minefield between the 25th and 26th east-west grid
lines in the vicinity of Himeimat.
An interesting sidelight on this preliminary operation, and the subsequent
tank penetration, was that the British fully intended to shell the Axis armor
while they were confined and restricted in movement during passage through the
minefield, but due to a misinterpretation of orders, this was only lightly
done. As a result the Axis tanks managed to get through the minefields
The German 15th Armored Division, with approximately 140 tanks, came
through the minefield just north of Himeimat practically unharmed, then turned
due east. Around noon they were in the vicinity of the 43rd north-south grid. At
this point, for some reason not fully understood, they halted their advance, and
formed up as though they were expecting a counterattack. When the expected
counterattack did not materialize, they formed up in the area east of
Deir el Ragil, and proceeded in a northeasterly direction at about 1600. At
the same time they detached about 40 tanks, which remained in the area
of Deir el Ragil as security for the southern flank. It appeared that the
German armor would bypass the principal British position, and, in order to
prevent this, and to draw the Germans northward, the British commander
sent a detachment composed of two tank battalions south to make contact, and, if
possible, draw the Axis tanks north. This move was successful, as the British
detachment returned to its previous position closely followed by the
15th Armored Division. A patrol of the 15th Armored Division closed in on
the left flank of British Armored Brigade "A"* defending the main position
on the southern side of Alam El Halfa, and a short engagement followed. After
dark the 15th Armored withdrew to the south, leaving about 13 tanks
behind in a wrecked or burning condition.
The German 21st Armored Division crossed the minefield with the 15th Armored, then
turned in a northeasterly direction. It reached the area north of
Deir el Tarfa at 1700. At this point it came under the fire of the
right flank of British Armored Brigade "A" southwest of point 337. As
the Axis tanks closed in, a brisk fight followed which lasted till dark. The
21st Armored then withdrew to the vicinity of point 254, leaving
approximately 15 tanks burning or totally destroyed.
The German 90th Light Infantry Division which was on the north flank of
Rommel's southern group, had difficulty in crossing the minefields, but by
evening had succeeded in reaching the area north of Deir el Muhafid.
South of the 90th Light were the Italian divisions, Littorio, Ariete, and
Trieste, in the area Deir El Munassib. Of these latter three outfits, only the
Trieste completely crossed the minefields during the engagement.
German Reconnaissance Groups 3 and 33 advanced east, and then turned
south towards the area Qua El Labin.
In the central sector a localized Axis thrust by the German 433rd Infantry Regiment
and the Italian Bologna Division against the Indian outfits (aided by the
South African and the New Zealand brigades) on Ruweisat Ridge, advanced as
far as point 211, but was later driven back by counterattack.
In the northern sector, another localized Axis attack by the German
125th Infantry Regiment was momentarily successful near Tel el Eisa, but
was later driven hack to its original position by the Australian brigade
occupying that sector.
Patrols of British Motor Brigade "B" were active in the east and also
in the Himeimat area. The remainder of the British Eighth Army held to
their defensive positions, and only fought that part of the Axis forces
that attacked them. Allied air support was continuous and intensive, as
was the British artillery support, given from the area near Alam el Halfa
where it was concentrated.
In a review of the day's fighting, two points stand out. First, the Axis
attack did not come as a surprise to the British. Second, the British held
rigidly to their preconceived defensive plan. They did not counterattack but
waited, as planned, and met the Axis tanks on ground of the British choice.
During the night of August 31/September 1, British Armored Brigade "C", then
in reserve, was ordered to advance and tie in with the left flank of
Armored Brigade "A" to form a line along the foot of the Alam el Haifa
OPERATIONS: SEPTEMBER 1
Just prior to daylight, the Axis tanks formed for the attack. The 21st Armored Division
with approximately 50 tanks was along Deir el Agram facing the center
of the main British position.
The 15th Armored Division, with about 100 tanks, formed southeast of
the left flank of Armored Brigade "A".
At daylight, severe fighting broke out and continued until 1100. During the
first hour of the fight, Armored Brigade "C" fought forward from its position
in reserve, made contact with the left flank of Armored Brigade "A" on the
main position, and formed as directed. This advance by the British armored
reserve prevented the envelopment of the left flank of the principal British
It should be pointed out that the Armored Brigade "C" had been ordered
to the position it eventually took during the previous night. However, the orders
were not received until late at night, and execution was not as rapid as was
The engagement was resumed in the late afternoon and continued until
dark when the Axis withdrew to point 254 ridge, leaving behind 25 burning or
totally destroyed tanks.
During the day a third Armored Brigade "D" went into position between
the right flank of Armored Brigade "A" and the New Zealand box.
OPERATIONS: SEPTEMBER 2
During the night, the Axis formed up along the ridge at point 254, on the
defensive behind a screen of antitank guns.
After daylight, small and isolated groups of Axis tanks felt out positions
occupied by Armored Brigade "D" which had been moved up the previous
day, but no attack developed.
The 90th Light Infantry Division commenced withdrawing from its position
east of the minefield. It was replaced by the Trieste, supported by the
Ariete and Littorio. The Italian Brescia Division moved forward from the area
Deir El Munassib, and took up a position facing the southwest corner of the
New Zealand box.
Allied bombing and artillery fire was continuous and heavy, both by day
and night. Armored car patrols had gone around the Axis line and were
harassing Axis supply lines far to the rear.
OPERATIONS SEPTEMBER 3
The day of September 3 was comparatively quiet. Axis motor transport
commenced withdrawing westward along its axis of advance.
During the day British light armor, and patrols from Motor Brigade "B" intensified
their harassing activities from the east and south as far west as Himeimat.
Artillery elements joined these patrols and shelled the Axis motor
transport from comparatively close-up positions, then withdrew in face of
The British heavy armor remained in place along Alam el Halfa.
It appeared at this time that Rommel was still undetermined as to his
course of action. He had failed to draw the British armor away from its
support, or into antitank ambush; in fact, the British failed to play
the game the way he wanted them to play it.
OPERATIONS: SEPTEMBER 4
During the early morning hours, the New Zealand Division, composed of the
two New Zealand brigades, which occupied the box, assisted by a brigade of
another infantry division, laid down an artillery barrage and followed with an
infantry attack. This attack advanced south and along the trails in square 88-27.
The attack advanced 3 miles, but with the coming of daylight the Trieste,
Brescia, and the 90th Light Division, supported by the Ariete, and Littorio
Divisions, in a series of three counterattacks, forced the attacking troops
back nearly to their original positions.
This effort served one great purpose, however, in that it was evidently
the deciding factor in causing Rommel's withdrawal. The force of this attack
prevented him from using the 90th Light in a coordinated attack with the German
The air and artillery attacks were continued on the same large scale as
OPERATIONS: SEPTEMBER 5
The bulk of the Axis transport was withdrawn west of the minefields. The
90th Light withdrew off to the west. An antitank screen, supported by tanks, was
set up between Himeimat and Deir el Munassib.
This was a slow withdrawal, with Rommel utilizing to the full extent his
old scheme of leaving tanks visible as bait for British armor. These tanks
were well protected by antitank guns. Formerly the British had always
pursued them, and frequently had lost rather heavily. This time, all
British armored forces remained in their battle positions, with their
artillery continually firing on the retreating Axis forces.
Whenever the pursuing British infantry gun-carriers came within range, the
Axis antitank guns picked them off. Rommel withdrew carefully, sustained
only a minimum of losses, and eventually halted very close to his original
position, retaining only about 2 miles of the ground he had won on the
The Axis line in the southern sector was formed by the Italian Brescia
and Trieste Divisions in the northeast part of square 87-26. The Ariete
Division was at Deir el Munassib. The 90th Light Division was about 7 miles
to the rear of the Ariete, as a mobile reserve. The German 21st Armored Division,
the 3 and 33 Reconnaissance Groups, and the Italian Littorio Division covered
the area around Himeimat and west to El Taqa.
While the Axis motor transport was retreating through the minefield area, the
Axis air force managed to put up a fighter covering force which prevented
Allied bombings. This protective covering "umbrella" was only
local, however, and Allied bombing of the Axis rear areas continued
on an undiminished scale.
When Rommel took up the position mentioned above, he immediately prepared
strong defenses, and the El Alamein battle of August 1942 was at an end.
The Axis withdrawal was orderly, and since none of the previous engagements
had been on a large scale, the loss of equipment throughout the entire
battle was not unduly large.
Observers estimate that the Axis lost not more than 70 of their total of
440 tanks; of those lost, 55 were German.
Approximately 100 Axis motor transport vehicles, of which the majority
were captured British vehicles, were destroyed and left on the field.
Judging from the empty cans lying about the areas that the Axis troops
had occupied and then given up, the Axis forces appeared to be completely
rationed with previously captured British supplies.
The British entered the battle with a grand total of 546 tanks of all
types, and lost or had disabled a total of 67 tanks, which included
British mediums and American medium and light M-3's. Of the total
number of tanks lost, it was estimated that not more than 20 were
completely destroyed and beyond repair.
British personnel losses were relatively light. A British corps commander
estimated that the Axis losses were greater than the British in a proportion
of 2 to 1.
Rommel first advanced with his entire striking force, but there was no
indication that a full-fledged, all-out assault had been launched. It is believed
that he hoped to engage the British armor on grounds of his own choice, defeat it
and then occupy Ruweisat Ridge which commands the coast road and the avenue
When the British tanks refused to come out of their hull-down defensive
positions, and away from their antitank and artillery support, Rommel was not
quite sure of his ground and was afraid to risk his full strength. He spent 2 days
feeling out the British position, losing rather heavily in tanks and motor
transport while doing so. In view of later developments, it is also believed that
he underestimated British tank strength.
Rommel was not able to bypass the principal British position along Alam El Haifa and
then proceed eastwards to the Delta (El Hamman) because of the
constant danger to his supply line by the British armor, plus the constant interference
from Allied bombing and artillery.
On realizing the full extent of the British strength, Rommel withdrew to
his previous line and occupied the strongest defensive position in
the Western Desert.
The British success was due to: security; the well-planned defense which had
been thoroughly tested by many tactical exercises; a thorough knowledge among
troops and unit commanders of what was expected; proper execution and coordination
among higher echelons; and the continual artillery and air bombardments. The effect
of these bombardments, while not producing great material damage, must be
accounted as a decisive factor.
In the employment of armament the most outstanding points were: the British
static use of tanks; the effect of antitank guns; and complete utilization of
field artillery mobility.
The only notable achievement of the German Luftwaffe was their ability to
maintain a protective fighter-umbrella for several hours during the withdrawal
of motor transport through the minefields, despite over-all Allied air
*For security reasons the British units cannot be referred to in the text by their
exact designation. The armored brigades and the motorized brigade which played
main roles in the action will therefore be designated by letters (A, B, etc.). By
reference to the accompanying maps, the position and movements of these
units can be easily followed.