Following the First Battle of El Alamein which had stalled the Axis advance British general Bernard Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army from Claude Auchinleck in August 1942. Success in the battle turned the tide in the North African campaign.
The British Plan
With Operation Lightfoot, following a massive build-up of forces, Montgomery hoped to cut two corridors through the Axis minefields in the north. Armour would then pass through and defeat the German armour. diversionary attacks in the south would keep the rest of the Axis forces from moving northwards. Montgomery expected a twelve-day battle in three stages - "The break-in, the dog-fight and the final break of the enemy."
The British practised a number of deceptions in the months prior to the battle to wrong-foot the Axis command not only as to the exact whereabouts of the forthcoming battle, but as to when the battle was likely to occur. This operation was codenamed "Operation Bertram".
A dummy pipeline was built, stage by stage, the construction of which would lead the Axis to believe the attack would occur much later than it in fact did, and much further south.
To further the illusion, dummy tanks made of plywood frames placed over jeeps were constructed and deployed in the south. In a reverse feint, the tanks for battle in the north were disguised as supply lorries by placing a removable plywood superstructure over them.
The Axis were dug-in along two lines, called by the Allies the Oxalic Line and the Pierson Line. They had laid around half a million mines, mainly anti-tank.
The battle opened at 2140 hours on October 23 with an sustained artillery barrage. The initial objective was the Oxalic Line with the armour intending to advance over this and on to the Pierson Line. However the minefields were not yet fully cleared when the assault began.
On the first day the assault to create the northern corridor fell three miles short of the Pierson line. While further south they had made better progress but were stalled at the Miteirya Ridge.
On October 24 the Axis commander General Stumme died of a heart-attack and General Ritta von Thoma took command of the Axis forces, while Rommel was ordered to return to Africa, arriving on October 25.
For the Allies in the south, after another abortive assault on the Miteirya Ridge, the attack was abandoned. Montgomery switched the focus of the attack to the north.
There was a successful night attack over the 25-26th. The Axis counter-attack failed. The Allies had lost 6,200 men against Axis losses of 2,500, but while Rommel had only 370 tanks fit for action Montgomery still had over 900.
Montgomery felt the the offensive was losing momentum and decided to regroup. There were a number of small actions but by October 29 the Axis line was still intact.
Montgomery was still confident and prepared his forces for Operation Supercharge. The endless small operations and the attrition by the Allied airforce had by then reduced Rommel's effective tank strength to only 102.
The second major Allied offensive of the battle was along the coast, initially to capture the Rahman Track and then take the high ground at Tel el Aqqaqir.
The attack began on November 2 1942. By the 3rd Rommel had only 35 tanks fit for action. Despite containing the British advance, the pressure on his forces made a retreat necessary.
However the same day Rommel received a "Victory or Death" message from Adolf Hitler, halting the withdrawal. But the Allied pressure was too great, and the German forces had to withdraw on the night of November 3-4.
By November 6 the Axis forces were in full retreat and over 30,000 soldiers had surrendered.
The battle was Montgomery's greatest triumph. He took the name "Lord Montgomery of Alamein" when he was raised to the peerage.
The success of his plan led Montgomery to prefer overwhelming superiority in all his subsequent battles, leading to a reputation, with some, for being overcautious.
The Torch landings in Morocco later that month marked the effective end of the Axis threat in north Africa.
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