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Alam Halfa and Alamein

CHAPTER 19 — Comparative Strengths

page 249

Comparative Strengths

THE strength of the opposing armies on the day before the battle is difficult to compare owing to the differing methods of organisation, and thus of computing strengths, used in the available British and German records. The Allied figures are known in considerable detail, down to the number of tanks under repair in forward and rear workshops, and they cover the totals of men in all units and formations under the direct command of the Eighth Army without distinction between riflemen, gunners, cooks and clerks. The surviving German records, on the other hand, offer only the number of tanks fit for action in the panzer divisions and formation strengths in terms of men ready to take part in the battle under the Panzer Army's command as carrying or manning weapons. The Italian figures examined are incomplete, their detail difficult to reconcile with any totals given. The following comparisons are offered, however, to give some idea of the relative strengths of the two armies.

Against the Eighth Army's total on 23 October of 220,476 men under command (including 10,570 officers), the Panzer Army in the line could probably muster about 110,000, of whom slightly more than half were Italians.1 The British had as great a superiority in tanks, for just over 1000 of the 1348 Allied tanks held in the Middle East were in fighting trim in the forward areas while the Axis could muster 600 ‘runners’ at the most, of which only 129 were ‘heavies’ (German Mark III Special, Mark IV and Mark IV Special) to be pitted against the 430 British Grants and Shermans. The Eighth Army could also field more than 400 armoured cars against an Axis total of under 200.

1 The Panzer Army war diary carries entries to indicate that in the week before 23 October there were 237,000 Axis troops on the ration strength in North Africa. Of these, 91,000 were German Army, Navy and Air Force personnel, and 146,000 were Italians, divided into 84,000 in the rear and 62,000 in the forward areas. An equivalent ration state of British troops in the Middle East theatre has been estimated at over 500,000.

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For artillery the Eighth Army had approximately 900 medium and field guns, the majority 25-pounders, as well as 800 six-pounder and 550 two-pounder anti-tank guns, 48 3·7-inch and 700 Bofors anti-aircraft guns. With some 52 other weapons of assorted calibres, the British could man a grand total of 3050 guns.1 The Panzer Army, with 26 heavy guns for which the British had no equivalent, disposed of some 500 heavy, field, and medium weapons and 1000 anti-tank or dual purpose anti-tank/anti-aircraft guns of from 37- to 88-millimetre calibre. Of the notorious 88s, there were between fifty and sixty in the Alamein defences, with less than half the total sited in an anti-tank role. The Axis also had a quantity of guns of all types that could have been rapidly brought forward from the rear and coastal defence areas. Apart from a definite superiority in the number of guns, the Eighth Army also had the advantage of being able to concentrate its artillery at its chosen points of attack, while the Panzer Army had to maintain artillery defence across the whole front. Further, the Axis supply of artillery ammunition, in spite of restrictions and careful hoarding, was certainly considerably less than that of the British and its replenishment from the rear more difficult. Lastly, the British forces had a supply of transport vehicles, mostly well-shod and in good going order, vastly greater than the battle-worn and overdriven Axis transport fleet.

The figures for the Panzer Army fighting strength may be on the conservative side but there is no doubt that the Eighth Army had generally a two-to-one superiority. The course of military history shows that such a ratio is not sufficient on its own to ensure victory to the attackers.

The Panzer Army's dispositions were fairly well known in general to the Eighth Army through normal intelligence sources, but the Axis method of stiffening the Italians with German units made an exact delineation of divisional sectors impossible. It was known that, facing 30 Corps from the coast to the South African front, there were the infantry battalions of 382 and 433 Regiments of 164 Division in the tactically important positions in the mine gardens, with Italians of 61 and 62 Regiments of Trento Division and some Bersaglieri units sandwiched in between. Behind them there was the armoured reserve consisting of 15 Panzer Division and Littorio Armoured Division, with 90 Light Division on the coast by Ghazal and Trieste Division further to the west. The Bologna Division faced 4 Indian Division on Ruweisat Ridge and Brescia Division covered the ground opposite 50 Division in the

1 In the assault on the Chemin des Dames in 1918, the German siege train numbered 3719 guns.—Barrie Pitt, 1918. The Last Act.

page 251 old New Zealand Box area. Both these Italian formations were well stiffened with detachments of Ramcke Parachute Brigade. Folgore and Pavia Divisions held from Munassib to Himeimat, with 33 Reconnaissance Unit guarding the southern end of the line. The southern armoured reserve, of 21 Panzer and Ariete Divisions, lay to the rear, between the Qattara Box and Gebel Kalakh. The assault by 30 Corps would thus fall on 164 and Trento Divisions, while the attack by 13 Corps was directed at the junction of Brescia and Folgore Divisions at a point where the Ramcke parachutists had an extensive strongpoint.