A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

El Alamein: 70 Years Ago

"At 9:40 p.m., the barrage of over one thousand guns opened ..."

It may almost be said, "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat."
— Winston S. Churchill,  The Hinge of Fate (History of the Second World War, Volume V), US edition,  p. 603
Seventy years ago today two great armies totaling over 300,000 men stood poised, facing each other in Egypt only some 50 miles west of Alexandria, One flank was anchored on the Mediterranean, the other on the northern edge of the Qattara depression some 40 miles to the south. Though about to launch probably the largest battle ever fought on Egyptian soil, neither army was Egyptian. Though Egypt, reoccupied by Britain at the start of the war. was nominally a British ally, the Egyptian Army was suspected of Axis sympathies.

Seventy years ago tonight, the British Eighth Army and its Australian, New Zealand, Indian, South African, Greek and Free French allies launched the artillery barrage shown in the photo above. Their commander, Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery (who would be ennobled as Viscount Montgomery of Alamein), had gone to sleep.
In the evening [of October 23, 1942] I read a book and went to bed early. At 9:40 p.m. the barrage of  over one thousand guns opened, and the Eighth Army, which included some 1200 tanks went into the attack. At that moment I sas asleep in my caravan; there4 was nothing I could do and I knew I would be needed later. There is always a crisis in every battle when the issue hangs in the balance, and I reckoned I should get what rest I could while I could. As it turned out, I was wise to have done so; my intervention was needed sooner than I expected.

—Montgomery of Alamein, Memoirs of  Field Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, K.G., US edition, pp. 116-117
Montgomery at Alamein, later Montgomery of Alamein
As the British commander slept, the overall commander of the Axis Panzerarmee Afrika (popularly called the Afrika Korps, which was only a part of it) which faced him was on sick leave  back in  Germany. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the famous "Desert Fox," had left Lt. Gen. Georg Stumme in command of the German and Italian forces at Alamein. The day after the fight began, October 24, Stumme was at the front when he suffered a heart attack and died. Rommel rushed back hurriedly, arriving the night of October 25. Rommel would eventually see El Alamein in the same terms as the British did:
The battle which began at El Alamein on the 23rd October 1942 turned the tide of war in Africa against us and, in fact, probably represented the turning point of the whole vast struggle. The conditions under which my gallant  troops entered the battle were so disheartening that there was practically no hope of our coming out of it victorious.

The Rommel Papers, ed. by  B.H. Liddell-Hart p. 302
Rommel (at left)
The Russians who would defeat a German Army Group at Stalingrad in just a few weeks might disagree that Alamein was the turning point, but it was clearly a major one.

The turning point battle that began 70 years ago today was actually the Second Battle of El Alamein. The first, in July, had actually been the battle that stopped Rommel and fortified the position anchored on the Qattara Depression, which was too precipitate for tank operations and thus prevented the position being flanked. That battle had been fought by General Claude Auchinleck, who was then replaced by Montgomery. Auchinleck's admirers, who do not overlap at all  with Montgomery's admirers, often argue he deserves more credit than he gets for the ultimate outcome.

Before First Alamein, government offices in both Alexandria and Cairo were  burning documents and Alexandria came under German bombing; British plans were prepared to fall back to the Suez Canal if needed. That never became necessary, and after July it was not really a threat. But when the Second Battle of El Alamein ended in early November, Rommel was in full retreat, and with the American Torch landings in Algeria and Morocco soon after, the war in North Africa was dramatically transformed.

Diana Buja has some thoughts and links on the anniversary here, as well as reprinting earlier descriptions o Mersa Matruh.

And though Egyptian combat troops weren't fighting in the battle, some Egyptians are still dying as bedouin encounter mines and unexploded ordnance in that 40 mile corridor that are still lethal, as this anniversary report from The Independent reminds us. At least 17 people have been injured just this year.

World War II in the Middle East sometimes seems little remembered even in the countries affected, but I plan to look more at it as time permits, especially from local perspectives.
Positions at Start of Battle

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