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Alam Halfa and Alamein

CHAPTER 14 — The Development of the Plans

page 209

The Development of the Plans

AS in the trench warfare of the First War, there was not a great deal of variation possible in the planning of an offensive at Alamein. Neither the British nor the Axis gave serious thought to a wide outflanking turn round the south of the defended line, though such a movement might have been possible with the facilities with which the Eighth Army was finally equipped. The assembly of troops and material, together with the complicated preparations necessary to ensure navigation of the difficult going, could not have been hidden and there were other tactical and logistical disadvantages in such a left hook. Yet, with the parlous state of the Axis petrol supplies, it might have been more successful than the British planners could imagine, for the Panzer Army would have been hard pressed to deploy its reserves to meet the threat and at the same time maintain its fixed defences against a possible frontal assault. But the strongest argument of all against outflanking movements lay in the likelihood of a planned withdrawal by the Axis army before it was encircled. Montgomery was determined to break the pattern of see-saw fights up and down the desert by forcing the Panzer Army to fight—and be beaten—where it stood.

Planning was thus resolved into a choice of the sectors of the defended line against which main or secondary assaults should be made. There is evidence that Montgomery, or his staff, early considered the course suggested in some of the German appreciations, of holding attacks in the north to cover a major breakthrough in the vicinity of Ruweisat Ridge, a plan similar in conception to the July operations in which the New Zealand Division took part. This later evolved into a more ambitious proposal for simultaneous attacks by the two British infantry corps on the enemy's flanks, to page 210 converge once the defences were pierced; or alternatively, should the southern attack fail, for 30 Corps in the north, with the main weight of the army behind it, to swing towards the sea. Little detail of the planning up to this stage has survived, but it was all of the traditional pattern in which the infantry were expected to cut gaps through which the armour would charge to engage the Axis armour. The essence of these tactics lay in the concept that, although the British might lose tank for tank, the superior numbers in the Eighth Army would bring the armoured battle to a close with a credit balance, the surviving tanks then joining the infantry to polish off the now unprotected Axis infantry.

But hard facts, of the number of experienced troops and the amount of equipment available, brought second thoughts about a two-pronged assault, leading Montgomery to a decision to concentrate his forces in the north, with 30 Corps to make the infantry break-in and 10 Corps to follow through, while 13 Corps in the south played a minor, diversionary, role. In this form the plan took shape under the code-name lightfoot, a name it retained throughout later variations.

Considerable detail of this phase of the planning survived in the New Zealand records in spite of Montgomery's direction that the ‘paper battle’ was to be kept to a minimum. This came about mainly because Freyberg, his division allotted a dual role as assault infantry in the break-in under 30 Corps and as a mobile force in the break-out under 10 Corps, was unable to attend all the conferences called by the two corps headquarters. He was, moreover, still not completely fit, as the treatment he had received for the wound suffered at Minqar Qaim had left him with a troublesome rash. When, on 15 September, after an Army Commander's conference at which the salient points of lightfoot had been disclosed, he had driven to Maadi, his trip had been to some extent actuated by the need to get specialist advice and treatment. After an arduous round of visits and consultations, he was back within forty-eight hours at his headquarters near Burg el Arab to become immersed immediately in the sea of planning conferences. Early on the 18th he talked with the commanders of both 30 and 10 Corps, Leese and Lumsden, and then drove westward to see General Morshead of 9 Australian Division and examine from a forward observation post the ground over which the infantry were to advance. It took nearly 100 miles of dusty driving in the late afternoon to rejoin the Division, which was then assembling in the training area west of Wadi Natrun, and no sooner had he arrived than he received a summons to attend a 30 Corps conference the page 211 following morning. In considerable discomfort after the many miles of travel in heat and dust, he was able to plead the excuse of having his own divisional exercise to plan, the 10 Corps plans to study, and a backlog of paper work waiting at his headquarters. This occupied the 19th, while a war game exercise at the headquarters of 10 Corps claimed his close attention until the late afternoon of the next day. On returning to his own headquarters he found the GSO II of 30 Corps awaiting him with the lightfoot plans developed at the conference he had missed. Until close on midnight, Freyberg and his staff worked over these proposals point by point and drafted a detailed set of comments which, with a covering letter, was sent to General Leese. The next few days were filled with his own divisional exercises, but Freyberg found time to continue discussions with his staff and brigadiers on certain of the lightfoot proposals in the light of previous desert experience and of the current manoeuvres.

Freyberg's main worry lay in the timings of the infantry break-in battle. He was confident that his division could gain its objective and that 9 Armoured Brigade, after completing its close training with the infantry, could be moved forward before daylight in time to resist armoured counter-attack by the enemy. But the other three infantry divisions were to attack without heavy armoured brigades under command but with only detachments of two-pounder Valentines of 23 Armoured Brigade in support. The failure of any one division to get on, or at least close, to its objective, dug in, and supported against counter-attack would endanger the whole initial operation. The Army plan insured against this by having the two armoured divisions of 10 Corps advance through the infantry and deploy across the front, but Freyberg had grave doubts whether this would be accomplished. After talking with Lumsden, commanding 10 Corps, and Gatehouse whose 10 Armoured Division was scheduled to pass through the New Zealand sector of the assault, he came to the conclusion that, as at Ruweisat and El Mreir in July, the armoured formations were likely to act with caution rather than resolution. Latent suspicion of the armoured commanders' intentions was in fact so strongly rooted among the infantry that finally Morshead, Pienaar and Freyberg, the three ‘Commonwealth commanders’, approached Leese to voice their disquiet. Leese, who had only taken over command of 30 Corps from Ramsden after the Alam Halfa battle and had had no first-hand experience of the desert war, was unwilling to believe that the armour would not follow Montgomery's orders to the letter and was inclined to discount the infantry's lack of confidence. However, early in October, his own Brigadier General page 212 Staff (Brigadier G. P. Walsh) returned from a 10 Corps conference with similar doubts, upon which he brought the matter before the Army Commander. Montgomery then told the armoured commanders firmly that his orders allowed no latitude in interpretation. Though this edict was welcomed by the three ‘Commonwealth commanders’, some doubts still lingered in Freyberg's mind at least.

The New Zealand Division's manoeuvres with 9 Armoured Brigade in September were watched with interest by most of the senior commanders of the Eighth Army and the post-mortems were carefully studied, particularly of such details as the speed of communications between front and rear, the rate of advance of both infantry and tanks, the time taken by the engineers to clear the gaps in the minefields, and the timing of the operation as a whole from the moment dusk gave concealment from observation until the objective was occupied and consolidated against counter-attack. One innovation, arising from a suggestion made by Captain White1 of Freyberg's personal staff and adopted after trial, was the use of a distinguishable pattern of tracer shells or bullets fired by machine guns, anti-aircraft or field guns along sector boundaries to assist the troops in keeping direction at night.

The results of the manoeuvres had a great bearing on 30 Corps' plans. Although several details were varied by the three other infantry divisions to allow for differences in organisation and experience, Freyberg's methods for an infantry advance at night were adopted as the basis for standard practice. The New Zealand Division, most of whose officers and men had had experience in operations of a similar nature and were thus able to relate the exercises to battle conditions, was in the event the only formation to carry out full divisional manoeuvres. For purposes of indoctrination, brigades of the newly arrived 51 (Highland) Division relieved brigades of 9 Australian Division in rotation from 2 October onwards, so that neither of these two formations could muster its full three brigades out of the line at any time, while 1 South African Division, having to maintain its front with two brigades, could only release one brigade at a time for rest and exercises. All three divisions allocated at least one battalion each to train with the Valentine tanks.2

As for the main body of the armour in 10 Corps, there were several factors to hinder its training in co-ordinated action. To guard against a sudden spoiling attack by the Panzer Army should

1 Maj J. C. White, MBE, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Dunedin, 1 Nov 1911; barrister and solicitor; PA to GOC 1940–45; Solicitor-General, Feb 1966–; appointed QC Mar 1966.

2 Lt-Col S. F. Hartnell of 19 NZ Battalion was brought from Maadi Camp to advise the Highland Division on desert movement and formation.

page 213 word of the offensive leak out, an armoured reserve had to be kept ready to act at short notice. At the same time a scheme was still being implemented, on lines proposed by General Auchinleck some months earlier, of concentrating tanks by their types in the various formations. This entailed constant transfers of both tanks and their crews as the squadrons in the field were built up with new or reconditioned tanks—with every commander doing his best to acquire the new Shermans in place of Grants or Crusaders. A further impediment to collective training lay in the need to build up the lorried infantry, artillery and engineer units of the armoured formations, and for this it was often necessary to transfer men, and sometimes whole units, who had had no previous experience of working with armour. Though the armoured formations trained hard, much of the training was of necessity elementary and piecemeal.

By the time the results of the New Zealand post-mortems were made known, Montgomery himself had begun to see more clearly the shape of the battle he intended to stage, influenced no doubt by comments of the ‘Commonwealth commanders’ and other old desert hands. Studying the question why, in previous battles, superiority in numbers of tanks and men had failed to ensure victory, he realised that in the conventional form of breakthrough battle he was planning, his main body of armour would pass for a time beyond his immediate and direct control. Although, shortly after his arrival in the Middle East, he had enthusiastically started to form the British equivalent of the German panzer corps, called variously a ‘corps d'élite’ or a ‘corps de chasse’, it was becoming obvious that weaknesses in training, and particularly the strong cavalry tradition of the British armour, could hardly be eliminated in a matter of weeks so that 10 Corps, however hard it worked, could not hope to become that closely integrated body of all arms in which the power and achievement of the Africa Corps lay. The Army Commander in fact foresaw danger if his armour was permitted, in the local slang, to ‘swan around’ and fight independent battles on its own, but just such action was part of his present plan in which the armour was expected to sally forth from the infantry breach and do battle with the Axis tanks.

As already explained, after wide outflanking movements and a pincers assault by the two corps had been ruled out, the only method left was the direct, concentrated attack on a relatively narrow front, which was the method of the lightfoot plan. A seaborne landing behind the Axis lines might have been added, but it is doubtful if Montgomery ever seriously considered such an page 214 attempt after the abortive Tobruk raid of mid-September; in any case, most of the trained units and special equipment available in the Middle East for a sea-landing had been expended and insufficient remained to ensure success. Such an operation broke the rules both of concentration of effort and direct control.

It would seem, therefore, that little variation was possible on lightfoot. Yet, on 6 October, Montgomery made it known that he had changed the plan. Admittedly it was mainly a change in the principle under which the battle was to be fought, but it was a significant alteration and one that added much to the army's faith in his leadership, especially among the infantry. In detail, the lightfoot opening was to proceed as arranged, with a frontal assault by the four infantry divisions of 30 Corps under massive artillery support, to coincide with diversionary action along the whole of the fortified front and a feint, seaborne attack in the vicinity of Daba. After the infantry had penetrated the main Axis defences and the engineers had cleared gaps in the minefields, the armour of 10 Corps was to pass through. But, instead of a charge through the gaps ‘to seek out and destroy the enemy armour’ as previous operation orders had demanded, Montgomery now proposed that the tanks should form a bridgehead on ground of their own choosing and, with the support of their motorised infantry, anti-tank guns and artillery, go over in effect to the defensive, to cover further infantry operations against counter-attack. This would place the Axis armour and reserves at the disadvantage of having to counter-attack to relieve their front-line troops, which meanwhile would be under constant assault designed to ‘crumble’ them and remove the fixed defences as bases of armoured manoeuvre. The essential element was that the British armour would remain on the defensive until the Axis armour, wasted by fruitless counter-attacks and divorced from the fixed defences, would become too weak to conduct the war of manoeuvre in which the panzer divisions had shown themselves the superior. Only then might the British tanks be loosed to encircle and block the retreat of the survivors of the Panzer Army.

It was a bold conception and it shows that Montgomery perceived something of the essential differences between German tank tactics and the British. Seldom did German tanks advance against British tanks unless they were closely supported by anti-tank guns and, if possible, other artillery. Upon engagement the leading German tanks fell back, drawing the British tanks, unencumbered by supporting arms, on to an anti-tank gun line. The actions of 23 Armoured Brigade at El Mreir and 8 Armoured Brigade to the south of Alam Halfa offered recent examples of the difference in method. Under the new proposals, the British tanks page 215 were to attempt a modified version of the German tactics by thrusting themselves out to invite retaliation and then sitting tight, covered by field and anti-tank artillery, in a position where they would be under control and not likely to start a private war of their own.

Montgomery's plan was in effect an example of the concentrated frontal assault as employed by commanders throughout the ages in face of strong fortifications which could not easily be outflanked, and against which ruse and strategem were limited to the point and time of the attack. For the Axis, it held little element of surprise, except uncertainty of time and place. Although the desert had seen numerous versions of the outflanking manoeuvre since General O'Connor's early victories over the Italians, and was to see several more under Montgomery's leadership, the frontal assault on a narrow sector had not been completely unknown or untried. The claim that the new plan was a reversal of the accepted military thinking of the day1 rests upon the defensive role given to the tanks and the principle of eliminating the enemy's infantry before his armour, and it could at least be said that these two ideas were not standard practice. But whatever its degree of unorthodoxy, the new plan was basically sound, for it admitted some of the weaknesses in British training while offering simplicity of aim as well as firm control to bring unity of action.

Yet it almost came to grief over a blank spot in tactics which received far less attention in the planning than its importance warranted. This was the lack of practice in a common doctrine among the tanks, artillery and infantry for dealing with anti-tank guns, and particularly with those firing from the protection of minefields. Admittedly there was little time for such practice, even had the lack been generally recognised. Only 9 Armoured Brigade and the battalions of the Valentine-equipped 23 Armoured Brigade had the opportunity to train with the infantry divisions and other arms; the bulk of the armour in 10 Corps, as mentioned earlier, was never sufficiently organised to deal with anything more than the fundamentals of co-operative training.

Yet from the first day of the battle the German anti-tank guns rather than the Axis armour were clearly the main adversaries of the British tanks. Handling their guns, from the small 20-millimetre to the dreaded 88, with competence and determination and displaying an ability to disengage and re-form rapidly on a new line, the enemy anti-tank gunners in fact provided the key to the defence so long as the British armour was restricted by minefields.

1 See Memoirs, p. 119; Alamein to Sangro, p. 13.

page 216 On the evidence available it is probably true that in this, as in previous desert battles, British tanks suffered more from anti-tank guns sited in minefields than from any other cause, including the fire of opposing tanks. Realisation of this was in fact implicit in the extreme caution often shown by armoured commanders when asked to use their tanks in support of infantry against mined defences, for it was not so much the mines but the anti-tank guns that were feared, and with no common doctrine to deal with the guns, the tanks naturally preferred their freedom in the open desert where sweeping cavalry manoeuvres could more dashingly be employed. The development of tactics against the anti-tank gun is an interesting study, but at Alamein the study had hardly begun.

Because of this and other acknowledged weaknesses in co-operation, the planners, Montgomery included as his writings indicate, were still drawn towards regarding their armour as an entity separate from the rest of the army, and ignoring the absence of such a strict separation in German tactics. The plans thus kept alive the traditional concept of the desert battle, with its distinct phases of armour versus armour followed by infantry versus infantry. The change of principle merely reversed the order, and added a finale of infantry and surviving tanks versus infantry alone. The German anti-tank gun, under whatever arm of the service it was organised,1 was a factor likely to upset any nice distinction between the phases.

The change in principle in lightfoot made little difference to the preparations already in hand. The sector chosen for 30 Corps' initial infantry breakthrough was not altered materially, so that the New Zealand Division's exercises, over ground and defences resembling those of the actual front, were still valid, while the deception scheme, well started before 6 October when Montgomery announced the change, was not greatly affected.

1 The Eighth Army's anti-tank organisation consisted in the main of six-pounders manned by anti-tank regiments of the artillery and parcelled out in detachments to brigades, battle groups and columns, and the two-pounder platoons of the infantry. The British field regiments had some training, and experience, in anti-tank work, but such a role was not expected of them save in grave emergency. The tenor of British anti-tank policy was defensive. The Panzer Army had a greater variety of weapons, the armoured divisions having their own anti-tank units trained to act closely with the tanks in both defence and attack, and the infantry formations having a similarly integrated organisation. The German field artillery was trained in anti-tank work and supplied with suitable ammunition, while the Panzer Army disposed of a force of Luftwaffe personnel who manned the 88-millimetre and smaller anti-aircraft guns which could be used in an anti-tank role. Both in defence against tanks and in attack against an anti-tank gun line, the Germans showed a much greater degree of co-ordination of all arms than the Eighth Army had yet managed to attain.

page 217

The selection of the breakthrough sector was influenced by the fact that, though the enemy defences were believed to be less developed the further south the line ran, operations based on the main line of communication along the coastal road and railway would simplify many of the problems of supply, assembly and deception. Ever since the troops and reserves promised by Churchill in early August had begun arriving in the Middle East, the base depots had been spilling over into the desert, so that by September the coastal strip held a high concentration of men, vehicles and dumps, among which the preparations immediately prior to the assault could the more easily be concealed, while the open desert to the south lent itself to deception measures designed to be observed from the air.

Aware that his offensive could only gain surprise in the exact day and point of the opening attack, Montgomery was determined from the start to use security and deception to the full. Once he had decided that 13 Corps would take only a minor role, he directed that all movement and assembly between the front and the Cairo-Alexandria road should be placed under strict control and organised to a master plan.

The first step of the deception plan was to assess the requirements of 30 Corps for the opening day of the offensive, and as quickly as possible to fill the coastal strip to the necessary density of occupation. This would then remain constant, providing aerial observation with no signs of the sudden increase in the movement and concentration of transport or the dumping of stores which would normally precede an offensive. The appearance of the required density was practically reached by the first week of October by means of the extensive use of dummies of all types—vehicles, guns, tanks and dumps. In daylight the normal transport to service the front-line troops proceeded openly, but at night the roads were given over to convoys that brought forward the genuine articles to replace the dummies. In the same way, the movement of bodies of troops was disguised; the New Zealand Division, for example, carried out its exercises inland with no attempt at concealment but, on returning to the coastal area under cover of darkness, it replaced a camp of dummy vehicles while similar vehicles were erected in the inland area it had just vacated, manned by a small detachment who, by lighting fires and driving trucks around, gave a semblance of occupation to the dummy camp. Various refinements of camouflage were developed, such as devices known by the code-name ‘sunshields’, an erection of canvas over a framework, resembling a truck but capable of housing a tank or gun. Boxes of ammunition and other stores were either hidden page 218 underground or openly piled up in the shape of trucks, the Eighth Army's camouflage units becoming so expert that, even from a short way off on the ground, it was difficult to tell dummy from real. One detail that it was hoped would deceive the enemy over both the time and place of the offensive was the construction of a dummy pipeline leading from the coast inland towards the southern sector, and prolonged at such a set and steady pace that it appeared unlikely to be completed until well into November. At the same time a steady increase of camps, dumps and transport concentrations of both real and dummy vehicles was built up behind the southern sector.

Knowledge that the Axis had a technically efficient wireless intercept service was utilised in the design of a network of sets passing bogus routine messages from fixed positions, while the formations concentrating for the offensive maintained wireless silence.

With a constant stream of men moving to and from Alexandria and Cairo on army business or leave, to many of whom some details of the plans had to be released to allow them to carry out their particular jobs, the task of keeping the preparations secret from the civilian population of Egypt was impossible. Complete security, however, was attained of the two key details, the date and place of the opening attack. This was accomplished under a strict schedule of the release of information down the levels of command, and the curtailing of all movement out of the forward areas once a certain level had been reached. No recall of men on leave was made until the battle opened and other precautions were taken to disguise any increase in the tempo of preparations in the base area from enemy agents among the civilian population.

However, in spite of the great care and detail of the deception plan and security, there were times when this work appeared in jeopardy. On the morning of 12 October, six men of a 51 (Highland) Division patrol failed to return and fears were felt that, as a group, they might give the enemy information of value. The German records, however, show that nothing more than rumours of an impending offensive were elicited from them under interrogation. Again, on the morning of 22 October, an officer and NCO of the same division went missing, but it would appear that interrogation of these two either did not take place or was delayed until after the opening of the battle. Gale force winds on 16 and 17 October, causing the disintegration of many of the timber and canvas dummy vehicles, brought fears that enemy air reconnaissance might penetrate the deception, but hard work by the camouflage units under extra fighter cover repaired the damage in short order.

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The Panzer Army was aware of the existence of dummy vehicles behind the British lines but their intelligence service attributed their use purely to the misdirection of air attack; for some time both sides had been using dummy aircraft and vehicles set around little-used landing grounds to draw attention from the main airfields, and Axis deductions apparently did not go beyond this idea. Certainly the changes from dummy to real went unobserved by Axis air reconnaissance, which day after day reported no changes of importance in either the British positions or the density of occupation. Yet the actual number of dummy vehicles erected, though difficult to assess with close accuracy, must have been in the vicinity of 4000, or possibly even more.