Alam Halfa and Alamein
CHAPTER 31 — The End of the ‘Dog-fight’
The End of the ‘Dog-fight’
THE 3rd of November was a curious day in the Battle of Alamein in which confusion, indecision and caution were more prominent than action. Overnight the troops in the southern part of 13 Corps' sector had continued their deception operations to contain the enemy and keep him guessing, but in the northern part activity had been confined mainly to reliefs and regrouping. As daylight grew, observers on 4 Indian and 50 Divisions' fronts noticed a number of fires and explosions apparently unconnected with any battle action. Then, as visibility lengthened, they could see an unusual amount of movement above ground. Air reconnaissance confirmed that columns of marching men and convoys of vehicles were moving westwards.
This news which, with the 90 Light Division intercept, seemed to indicate the beginning of a general withdrawal by the enemy, reached Montgomery as he was holding a conference with Leese and Lumsden. The Army Commander therefore urged Lumsden to maintain strong pressure with his two armoured brigades so that the enemy would not disengage and slip away before the pursuit force was ready. Lumsden had already added to his previous orders by telling 2 Armoured Brigade to advance and support 2 King's Royal Rifle Corps at Aqqaqir while 8 Armoured Brigade moved out round the south between this feature and ‘Skinflint’, but the morning drew on with little appreciable advance by the tanks, who reported that the anti-tank screen on the Rahman Track was still very active. The method of advance by the tanks at this stage was the simple one of identifying each gun by drawing its fire and then ‘shooting it out’, a method that was sportsmanlike but slow. The field artillery did its best to help but was handicapped by the page 412 armour's weakness in map reading. The lack of infantry properly trained for co-operation with the tanks was sadly felt.
The enemy guns around Point 44, the highest point of Tell el Aqqaqir, were thus left to snipe the tanks almost unmolested until the early afternoon, when reports from artillery observers made it clear that the feature was still in enemy hands and that the foremost troops of the King's Royal Rifle Corps and the tanks were all well to the east of the Rahman Track.
Before this information had been received and digested by the headquarters staff of 10 Corps, Montgomery's plans for the pursuit had already been outlined in some detail. In order to avoid the gun screen facing the SUPERCHARGE salient, an infantry advance was to be undertaken by 51 Division to occupy the Rahman Track immediately to the south of the presumed position of the Rifle Corps battalion on Tell el Aqqaqir. Pivoting on this base, 1 Armoured Division was then to swing to west and north in order to encircle the enemy forces against the coast, while 7 Armoured Division made an even wider sweep with Ghazal station as its objective. The New Zealand Division with 4 Light Armoured Brigade under command was to follow behind 7 Armoured Division, with Sidi Ibeid as its first objective and Fuka and Matruh as possible further objectives. On the rest of the front, the Australians were to clear up the coastal pocket and 13 Corps was to keep in contact and follow up any enemy withdrawal.
Montgomery also gave orders for preparations to be put in hand for Operation GRAPESHOT, a plan made before the battle for a drive on Tobruk by Headquarters 8 Armoured Division commanding a mixed force of Valentine tanks on transporters, armoured cars, mobile artillery, infantry and other arms, together with an Air Force component. All this planning, however, was altered and varied in detail as the situation developed in the next twenty-four hours.
By midday on the 3rd, air reconnaissance had confirmed not only the start of the enemy withdrawal in the south but also of dense convoys of vehicles on the coastal road and the tracks leading into it. The air effort, hitherto concentrated mainly on the Rahman Track and the battle area, was now switched to the supply routes, especially the main road through Daba and Fuka and even as far west as Matruh, where the traffic was thick. The enemy's air force made an unusual effort to provide protection to the traffic, sending fighters to cover the road and Stukas to make diversions over the British lines, but by the end of the day the British air forces were plainly in control of the skies.1page 413
While the Eighth Army was limbering up for its final effort to crack the enemy line, the moment was fast passing when an armoured breakthrough might have thrown the whole of the Panzer Army into confusion. Rommel's plans for the withdrawal had passed down the channels of command, and the rear services had already started to ferry stores and supplies back from the forward dumps to the second-line dumps which could service the new Fuka line. In the front lines, the available transport had been allocated to the rearguards, mainly German, and any surplus vehicles used to bring out the remaining infantry, the Germans being given priority, so that the bulk of the Italians were expecting to plod the desert on foot to collecting points where their own inadequate transport was attempting to ferry them back to work on the new Fuka line.
The withdrawal was covered in the north by 21 Panzer Division across the coastal road and by 15 Panzer Division's thin line of anti-tank guns and a few tanks facing the supercharge salient. To the south of Tell el Aqqaqir, where the Trieste Division had practically disintegrated under the attacks on ‘Skinflint’ and ‘Snipe’, there was a dangerous gap which Africa Corps hoped would soon be covered by Ariete Division's tanks from the south. The remainder of the front was protected by an extremely thin line of rearguards provided by 164, Bologna and Trento Divisions, Ramcke Brigade and Folgore Division. There is evidence that Bologna troops, if not others, had already anticipated the signal for the withdrawal to commence.
Expecting that the British would employ their customary tactics of halting against any opposition to deploy their artillery, Rommel was relying on his thin screen of rearguards to allow him to disengage cleanly. Whether he really expected to re-form on the Fuka line is questionable and it is more likely he nominated this short bound to satisfy the German High Command, and to allay any panic among his troops. He may even have seen a retreat similar to the British withdrawal from Gazala to Alamein but in greater control, at the worst as far as Agheila, before his opponents became so overstretched that he could form a firm line.
After a morning visit to the forward area, where he learnt that the British were showing no signs of immediate aggressive action, Rommel decided the moment was opportune for disengagement and gave the signal for all but certain selected rearguards to make for the Fuka bound. Unfortunately no detailed order for any of the rearguards has survived, but it would seem Rommel expected them to hold firm, unless they were in grave danger of being overrun page 414 or encircled, at least until the early hours of the 4th, or possibly even longer should the British delay in mounting a major assault.
Then, running the gauntlet of the bombs of a ‘Boston Tea Party’ formation of the Royal Air Force, he reached the Panzer Army command post in the early afternoon to find awaiting him a message from Hitler that upset all his plans. Various versions of this message are given in the German records and elsewhere but the full text read as follows:
It is with trusting confidence in your leadership and the courage of the German-Italian troops under your command that the German people and I are following the heroic struggle in Egypt. In the situation in which you find yourself there can be no other thought but to stand fast, yield not a yard of ground and throw every gun and every man into the battle. Considerable air force reinforcements are being sent to C-in-C South. The Duce and the Commando Supremo are also making the utmost efforts to send you the means to continue the fight. Your enemy, despite his superiority, must also be at the end of his strength. It would not be the first time in history that a strong will has triumphed over the bigger battalions. As to your troops, you can show them no other road than that to victory or death. Adolf Hitler. 1
This order could hardly have reached Rommel at a more inopportune moment. Had it arrived before he issued the final withdrawal signal or when the movement had gone too far to be halted, he could have acted with decision. As it was, he himself admitted that ‘for the first time during the African campaign I did not know what to do’.2 In his customary way, Rommel had up till now been playing the battle by ear, waiting for the time when he felt the British might be pausing for breath and genuinely expecting that he could get the bulk of his army clear to fight another day. The issue of his definite order that morning had lifted a weight from his mind for, though the future might be uncertain, it meant that the wearying static battle of attrition would give place to the mobile battle of manoeuvre.
The German war diaries, even more clearly than his own account, underline his indecision in the next few hours. As a loyal officer he felt he had to obey his Fuehrer. As the commander of an army that relied on his leadership, he knew that such obedience would spell its doom. In discussion with von Thoma, he agreed that withdrawal might be made to the first bound, the 850 easting grid, without disobedience, but no sooner had he done this than warning of a British assault for the coming night came through intercepts, while all the time reports flowed in of the progress of the various formations in withdrawal.
2 Rommel Papers, p. 321.
The degree of compromise urged by von Thoma and his staff is well illustrated in a message issued by the Africa Corps to its subordinate formations:
The only measure left to us is to initiate a mobile defensive policy and withdraw a little to regain freedom of manoeuvre…. We can do this without abandoning our main policy of defending the Alamein front.1
However, Rommel was not as ready as his Corps Commander to deceive Hitler and, possibly to keep his record clean, he then issued his own order authorising the Africa Corps to fall back to its first bound but ‘this line is to be held to the last man’. He followed this within the hour by, ‘Stay in your defence positions. The Fuhrer's order does not allow for mobile defence’; and then, ‘I demand all possible efforts to be made to retain possession of the present battlefield, so that the operations now in progress may be brought to a victorious conclusion’.2
In the parlous state of the Panzer Army's communications, and particularly in the always uncertain links through the various Italian headquarters to the men in the line, the task of halting the withdrawal just as it had started was practically impossible. Unfortunately most of the low-level records were lost or deliberately destroyed in the retreat so that it is difficult to discover in what detail Hitler's order was carried out. Rommel claims3 that it had a powerful effect on the troops, and this was probably true of the Germans for the British records indicate that most of the resistance met, other than on Africa Corps' front, came from the pockets of German troops sandwiched among the Italians. It is known that contact could not be established immediately with large bodies of the Italians who were already on the march back, and possibly with some of the Germans, and it seems probable that such troops did not return to the front but, when finally contacted, halted where they stood and continued their withdrawal the next day. One thing certain is that Hitler's order completely upset plans for the effective use of the transport available to ferry the men back.
1 DAK messages, GMDS 25869/9–11.
2 Africa Corps messages on GMDS 25869/6. These three messages are timed 1745, 1840, and 1842 hours, Panzer Army ‘new’ time, that is, Central European Standard time, two hours behind Eighth Army's summer time.
3 Rommel Papers, p. 322.
So, during the afternoon and evening of the 3rd, the whole of the Panzer Army was well off balance, most of its front held by a thin line of rearguards behind whom the bulk of the troops were on the march, uncertain of their roles or destination. The Africa Corps alone, under von Thoma's firm direction, could have offered cohesive opposition but the two panzer divisions, at the time Rommel read Hitler's order to von Thoma that afternoon, had no more than twenty-four battleworthy tanks.1
Montgomery of course knew nothing of Hitler's intervention. The Australians, patrolling cautiously into the coastal pocket, found guns demolished and positions abandoned and booby-trapped. Opposition was not met until the patrols began to probe further west towards Sidi Abd el Rahman. In the southern part of the line, all observation seemed to confirm a major withdrawal, but patrols, after negotiating the heavily mined and booby-trapped line of abandoned outpost positions, invariably were brought to a stop by determined resistance from strongpoints covering the minefields. Most of the battalions of 13 Corps took their lines forward to occupy the vacated enemy outposts so that they could bring fire to bear on the rearguard positions, but nowhere was the enemy forced to retire against his will except on the front of 2 Fighting French Brigade, where a fighting patrol overran a strongpoint around Point 104.
Several plans were considered by Horrocks for attacks to overwhelm the rearguards but he discarded them in place of a major breakthrough assault and encircling movement to take place on the 4th. However, with no armour and little more than essential transport for servicing his corps, he was forced to reconsider this plan and, in the event, no major action by his corps was found to fit in with Montgomery's plans.
1 Of Littorio's tanks about 17 survived, and Ariete, when it started its move from the south, mustered about 150.
The general orders for these infantry advances were issued in the morning of the 3rd, after which, on the assumption that the attacks would breach the enemy's gun line, the rest of the day was spent on plans and preparations for the break-out to be undertaken by 1 and 7 Armoured Divisions, and by the New Zealand Division with 4 Light Armoured Brigade under command.
At this time, Freyberg was confident that the enemy line could be ‘cracked’ at any moment and was keen to have heavy armour under his command for the pursuit role. It was, however, found impossible to reconstitute 9 Armoured Brigade as a whole, so the Warwickshire Yeomanry was built up from the survivors of the other two regiments to augment 4 Light Armoured Brigade. This brigade met considerable trouble when it attempted to assemble in the congested area in the rear of the salient but, on Freyberg's insistence, Eighth Army issued a firm order for an area to be cleared for it.
The final infantry operations at Alamein got off to a shaky start. At 5.20 p.m. 5/7 Gordons and the Valentines of 8 Royal Tanks had married up in the Gordons' sector, scattered mines in the route of the advance had been cleared by engineers, and everything was ready for the massive artillery support prepared together with bombing by Bostons, when a message came through the headquarters of 152 Brigade that the enemy had vacated the objective. The origin of this information is obscure but it added strength to a belief held by 1 Armoured Division that the artillery and air support would fall on the Rifle Corps men and the tanks which the division still thought were further to the west than they actually were. Though more reliable information had been supplied by page 418 artillery observers and by the commander of 8 Royal Tanks who had earlier reconnoitred the front, this was discounted and the Gordons were ordered to start, covered only by smoke. Led by a squadron of Valentines carrying three platoons of infantry, the advance went well until the smoke ceased, when enemy ahead opened up with anti-tank and machine-gun fire. The Gordons' wireless went out of operation but the commander of 8 Royal Tanks managed to get a situation report back to his own brigade headquarters, which then asked 51 Division to have the originally planned supporting fire laid on. Though by this time in the battle the lesson of accepting 1 Armoured Division's map reading should have been learnt, this request was refused, as was a further suggestion to lift the supporting fire 300 yards to the west, but the Highland Division promised to get the artillery to continue and increase the smoke. The commander of 23 Armoured Brigade then instructed 8 Royal Tanks not to attempt to advance against opposition but to get into cover and protect the infantry. This the Valentines did and, as the night fell, the Gordons were digging in about halfway between their old positions and their objective, still well to the east of the Rahman Track. Losses in 8 Royal Tanks were heavy: 12 men killed and 15 wounded, 9 tanks destroyed and 11 damaged. The Gordons' losses were given as 67 killed and wounded, or 98 all told, the latter figure probably including those missing. While the action was occurring, 1 Armoured Division signalled 51 Division to admit that its troops were from 1000 to 2000 yards east of the map references on which it had based its objection to the artillery programme.
The failure of the Gordons to reach their objective was not allowed to prevent the next phase, the advance by 5 Indian Infantry Brigade to a point on the Rahman Track south of the Gordons' objective. This was to be supported by 50/46 Royal Tanks, an amalgamation of the surviving Valentines of these regiments, and by a powerful artillery programme. The Indians and the Valentines had been able to make a reconnaissance of the front early in the afternoon and mark out a start line and assembly areas, but no major movement was made until last light.
Although the Indian brigade was not trained to follow a barrage, the New Zealand CRA, Brigadier Weir, to whom Leese had entrusted the fire support, persuaded the brigade commander to accept the standard New Zealand method of a simple lifting barrage augmented by concentrations. In fact, Weir took the Indian brigadier and his staff forward in daylight and had his gunners demonstrate by laying a line of smoke on the start line and the lifts. This practical test also showed that the final lifts could not be reached by some of the field guns in their present positions page 419 and would have to be dealt with by the medium guns. With the short notice, the depleted staff of the New Zealand artillery headquarters had to work hard to prepare the barrage plan but managed to issue it by telephone in good time to the units concerned, which included field regiments from 1 Armoured, 51 Highland, and the New Zealand divisions and two medium regiments, firing in all a total of about 37,000 rounds. To help the Indian infantry to form up and fix their positions, Weir allowed for a 1 ½ hour standing barrage on the opening line. This would then be followed by 100-yard lifts every three minutes for one hour, a 20-minute pause and further lifts for 45 minutes, with Bofors tracer to mark the boundaries along the 230 degree line of advance.
The Indian brigade's operation started in even more confusion than the Gordons'. Zero hour for the artillery was set at 1.30 a.m. but by midnight only one battalion, ¼ Essex, was assembled and ready to move, so the start time was postponed for one hour. Then, when it seemed that 3/10 Baluch,1 due to share the lead with the Essex battalion, would not get forward even for the late start, the reserve battalion, 4/6 Rajputana Rifles,2 was sent to take its place. Several of the supporting detachments of signals, engineers and drivers, some lent by other formations, arrived in the assembly area without knowing the tasks allotted them and had to be hurriedly briefed, while at the original zero hour some batteries of 6 NZ Field Regiment and possibly others commenced to lay the standing fire as news of the postponement had not reached them.
1 3 Bn, 10 Baluch Regt.
The final infantry operation for this night was an advance by 7/10 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to Tell el Aqqaqir. This battalion, which had taken over the ‘firm base’ position at the rear of the salient from 6 NZ Brigade the previous night, assembled early in the night and at 1.30 a.m. started to thread its way through the mass of troops and vehicles which now filled every track and almost every square yard of the salient. Halting in the area where both the Gordons and the Indian brigade had laid out their start lines, and which consequently was being used as the route to the newly gained positions, the Highlanders formed up parallel to the Rahman Track, using as their guide the line of telegraph poles which, as the sky lightened, could be dimly discerned in the distance. With the uncertainties over the positions of the armoured division's troops now settled, the supporting barrage, fired by regiments of the armour under the control of the commander of 128 Field Regiment, RA, was allowed to commence as planned at 5.15 a.m. This consisted of a simple standing barrage for an hour along a stretch of the track, followed by the customary lifts over about 1000 yards and ending with a half-hour standing barrage. When the shellfire ceased at 7.10 a.m., the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders found themselves in complete and unopposed occupation of the Tell el Aqqaqir feature for the loss of eight men killed and 23 wounded, mainly from scattered shellfire and mines. Two German prisoners only were captured, for the enemy had clearly abandoned the area in haste. Among the positions there was a headquarters, probably that of 164 Division, where many documents, as well as much signal, medical and other equipment, were found undemolished.
These three infantry operations ended the period which Montgomery called the ‘dog-fight’, though they could hardly be said to have completed the breach in the enemy's line, for by the end of this night there was no line as such to be breached. The front from Aqqaqir southwards had been held by 164 Light Division, which had been told by Africa Corps to withdraw on the evening of the 2nd in transport provided by the Corps so that its troops could be divided among the two panzer divisions. When, by the early morning of the 3rd, none of the promised trucks had appeared, communication with the Corps had broken down, and the Italian infantry and artillery had already decamped, the divisional commander decided that his front was too thinly held, and too full page 421 of holes where the Italians had been; accordingly he gave the order for withdrawal to start after dark on the 3rd. The attack by the Gordons arrived before the retreat had begun, but even the rearguards should have been away before the Indians' operation and it can only be assumed that the prisoners taken had not received the orders or were perhaps waiting for transport to ferry them back. As it was, the majority of the men of 164 Division marched back on foot overnight to the vicinity of the ‘Ariete’ or ‘Telegraph’ track, the next north-south supply route west of the Rahman Track, where they later became involved in a tank battle, suffering numerous casualties. On being distributed among the Africa Corps formations, many units of the division found that they had to continue to retreat on foot owing to the Corps' lack of transport.
From the experience of 164 Division, and similar experiences of 90 Light Division, it is clear that Hitler's order and Rommel's consequent indecision did not materially affect the final result in Africa. Rommel's original plan of withdrawal was based on unreliable logistics, for the strained transport and supply situation which so affected the outcome at Alam Halfa had, under the pressures of the Alamein battle, already reached the breaking point. However much Rommel believed he could disengage and fight a mobile battle, only a small proportion of the Panzer Army could have been made mobile and all that Hitler's intervention did was to lessen this proportion.
The ‘Fuka line’, of which there is so much talk in the German records, was an impracticable proposition, even if the Eighth Army had delayed following up for several days. The bulk of the troops to man it would have arrived weary, dispirited and short of weapons and equipment. They would have had to be concentrated in the coastal area, the front could not have been mined owing to the shortage of transport and mines, and the whole line could have been easily outflanked to the south. Any such line-by-line withdrawal was impossible without adequate transport and Rommel was inevitably committed to the hit-and-run retreat he eventually carried out. In fact, the transport problems of the Panzer Army were such that, once the Alamein battle had been joined, Rommel was faced with the alternatives of fighting the Eighth Army to a standstill or of a retreat in which the bulk of his infantry would have had to be left to fend for themselves.
By the evening of 3 November, the initiative was completely in Montgomery's hands. He was aware from air reconnaissance and the reports of the Royals and Long Range Desert Group patrols behind the enemy's line that there was no prepared line at Fuka or further back on which the Panzer Army could make a stand, so page 422 that he assumed Rommel intended to use his mobile forces to fight a rearguard action behind which the rest of the Panzer Army could withdraw. The whole of his planning, however, had been designed to avoid a repetition of the see-saw desert fighting and towards making the enemy stand and fight against his battering-ram of massed guns, tanks and infantry. Failing to realise fully the parlous state into which the Panzer Army had fallen, he resisted the pressures of those who wished to set off hot-foot in pursuit, especially as this would have meant letting the armour loose out of his direct control.
Accordingly the night of 3–4 November was spent in probing for a gap with the infantry operations already described, and careful preparations for sending the armour through at daylight if the gap should be found. Montgomery still insisted that a continuous infantry front be maintained, though he ordered several transfers and alterations of sectors so that troops could be released to his reserves. Horrocks of 13 Corps was given clearly to understand that no part of his corps was to rush forward and ‘receive a bloody nose’.
The only experimental action he permitted was a renewal of the attempts to pass armoured cars through the enemy line. Just before dawn two squadrons of 4/6 South African Armoured Car Regiment and the rest of the Royals, that is, Headquarters and B Squadrons, slipped through the area where 5/7 Gordons had earlier been repulsed and crossed the Rahman Track into the open desert. The South Africans made in the direction of Fuka while the Royals drove west to join their other two squadrons. Of the total effect of the actions of these armoured cars, it could be said here that they relayed valuable information to the Eighth Army and also proved a considerable nuisance to the Panzer Army. The first two squadrons through interrupted the supply routes to the southern part of the line, causing the enemy to waste valuable petrol and employ extra troops and trucks to provide convoy guards. An attempt to cooperate with the Air Force in an attack on a landing ground south of Daba met with only indifferent success.
At dawn on 4 November the Alamein defences had ‘crumbled’ and the pursuit began in earnest though, with the congestion on the tracks leading through the SUPERCHARGE salient and with memories still fresh of the anti-tank screen on which 9 Armoured Brigade had broken only a short time earlier, initial movement was slow and cautious. Screened by a dawn mist, all three armoured divisions sent reconnaissance groups ahead to test whether any opposition might still lie beyond the Rahman Track.
As the tanks of the three British armoured divisions reached the Rahman Track, the Australians were already busy clearing the road page 423 and railway in order to ease the supply problem, which was likely to increase the further west the armoured forces drove. South of the break-out area, there were still some pockets of Germans, fanatically determined to fight the rearguard battle that Rommel had asked for; but in the far south, where Italian troops had been predominant, 13 Corps' patrols found the defences abandoned. Resistance around the Qattara Box area where the Ramcke parachutists were stationed caused Horrocks to ask the Army Commander's permission to lay on an attack, on the assumption that a delaying stand was being attempted, but Montgomery was unwilling to waste his forces in an unnecessary battle, for the armoured advance would soon isolate all the enemy remaining in the south. This decision was also influenced by the strain already felt by the supply services in keeping the northern battle going, and the even greater effort that would be needed to keep the advancing armour supplied. He therefore directed Horrocks merely to send out patrols all across his front to keep in touch with the enemy and, if possible, encircle any areas of resistance.
The balance sheet for the battle that raged at Alamein from 23 October to 4 November cannot be drawn up with detailed accuracy. Total British losses came to 13,500 men, of whom fewer than 3000 were killed, the remainder being mostly wounded and a few taken prisoner. Being victors on the ground, the Eighth Army was able to recover most of the 500 tanks put out of action, and of these only 150 were found beyond repair. Of field, medium and anti-tank guns the army lost, as far as can be ascertained, no more than about a hundred damaged beyond repair.
The battle-worthy tanks in the Eighth Army on the evening of the 3rd included 151 Grants or Shermans and 103 Crusaders held by the three heavy armoured brigades,1 some 30 to 40 heavy tanks in 4 Light Armoured Brigade and the Warwickshire Yeomanry, 66 Valentines in 23 Armoured Brigade, and a large number of Stuarts in various of the formations, giving a grand total of over 400 tanks altogether.
1 i.e., 2, 8 and 22 Armoured Brigades; 24 Brigade was ‘cannibilised’.
1 Bayerlein, in a footnote to the Rommel Papers (p. 358), gives the German official figures as:
Alexander in his Despatch (London Gazette, 3 Feb 1948) estimated Axis losses for approximately the same period as 10,000 killed, 15,000 wounded, and 30,000 prisoners, a total of 55,000.
While it seems certain that Alexander overestimated the Axis losses, it is equally certain that the German figures underestimated them, particularly in the Italian totals of killed and wounded.
2 264 ‘runners’ and 102 en route or under repair.—GMDS 25869/6.
3 Rommel Papers, p. 336.