Alam Halfa and Alamein
CHAPTER 23 — Dawn, 24 October
Dawn, 24 October
THE situation of the Eighth Army as day dawned on the 24th was that, in the main area of operations, the infantry of 30 Corps had gained most of the desired objectives, but the armour had not yet broken out as planned, while the subsidiary action by 13 Corps had done little more than keep the enemy on the southern sector engaged and apprehensive of further assaults.
The first estimates of casualties received at Army Headquarters indicated that the Australian and South African divisions had each lost about 350 men, of whom about forty were known killed, the rest wounded or missing. The New Zealand estimated total was slightly higher, 420 wounded or missing and 41 killed, while the Highland Division offered a rough total of 1000, but this probably included several of the isolated groups and stragglers out of touch with their units. The total loss in 30 Corps was therefore thought to be in the vicinity of 2000 men all told, a total not considered unduly high for the results gained on the first night. Yet the losses, coming as they did mainly from the effective riflemen of the infantry battalions, were felt heavily in the New Zealand Division with its seven under-strength battalions. The other three divisions, all of whom had at least nine battalions and better pools of reserves, were less affected. In 10 Corps, casualties were too light to have any effect on the armour's efficiency, and though some thirty to forty tanks were out of action through enemy fire, mines or mechanical troubles, most of these were easily recoverable and repairable.
Casualties in 13 Corps, excluding the French, were under 400, almost equally shared by the armour and infantry, and of the total 71 were known killed and 50 reported missing. Losses by the Fighting French were believed to be relatively heavy in the two battalions of the Foreign Legion most actively engaged, but little was known of the French action until late on the 24th, when a page 288 check showed about 130 casualties in men and some fifty vehicles and several guns lost.1
It will be seen that the first night's achievements at Alamein fell short of Montgomery's intentions, if not of his expectations. The essence of the operation was the mass ‘break-out’ of the armour, formed up, organised and under unified control, on ground beyond the infantry's objective. It is doubtful whether, by the methods employed and in the conditions met, this could have been achieved in the hours of darkness available. Although the leaders of one or more of the six tank columns of 10 Corps may have shown undue caution in threading their way through the newly won ground, others certainly progressed at a rate probably near the limit of speed possible; yet not one of the six reached the infantry objective in sufficient time to break out and re-form in the manner prescribed and, as the experience of the Notts Yeomanry showed, a piecemeal advance, once darkness began to lift on Miteiriya Ridge, was extremely hazardous. Success required that all six columns, or the best part of them, should be in position well before daylight, with lorried infantry and supporting arms close behind.2
The failure of the armour to break out as a body gave the Panzer Army the small amount of time it needed to recover from the initial shock of the assault. German plans of the defences indicate that 30 Corps' infantry had in most places penetrated the outer belt of the mine-garden design.3 Beyond this, the defences consisted of a number of tactical minefields intended to channel any armour that broke through, as well as numerous mined areas protecting rear strongpoints, headquarters and gun areas. No continuous second line had as yet been completed, so that there were several gaps and spaces clear of mines in which the British armour could have manoeuvred. Every hour's respite allowed the Panzer Army to fill these gaps with mines and anti-tank guns to offer a formidable defence now that the element of surprise had gone.
1 Separation of casualties occurring on the opening night from those suffered up to midnight on the 24th has been found impossible. The totals given above provided the basis on which immediate future operations were planned.
2 This operation gave evidence that the pleas of New Zealand, and other, infantry commanders for ‘armour under command’ were not without foundation, for 9 Armoured Brigade, acting as an integral part of the infantry division, was the only formation that reached the ridge in time to take part in a mass tank advance.
The only element of surprise lay, as Montgomery himself had expected, in the weight and direction of the assault, and it was in this that weaknesses in the command structure between Italians and Germans, acidly commented on earlier in German records, left the Panzer Army headquarters almost completely enveloped in the fog of war until well into the following day.
A comment in the German campaign narrative, compiled later from diaries and reports, that ‘After the overrunning of the Italian battalions, the interspersed German battalions stood like islands in the holocaust’2 seems hardly fair, as all the battalions, both German and Italian, within 30 Corps' objective were either overwhelmed or driven back except for the positions in the centre of the Highland Division's sector. Several Italian posts are known to have resisted stoutly, but at the point of giving way, where German troops could stage an orderly withdrawal, the Italians were likely to fall into disorganisation.
1 Panzer Army situation sketches, 15 Pz Div war diary (GMDS 24902), inter alia.
2 GMDS 34373/1–2.
The Panzer Army's losses for this first night cannot be accurately assessed but, on a basis of five battalions overwhelmed by 30 Corps together with the casualties inflicted by 13 Corps and by the British shellfire, the total cannot be far short of that suffered by the Eighth Army. A check of prisoners, mostly captured during the night and early morning, showed 954 held by 30 Corps and about 500 by 13 Corps, a total of 1454, of whom approximately one third were Germans.1
1 The German campaign narrative (GMDS 34373/1–2) gives the total German-Italian casualties compiled to the evening of 26 October as 3655. It is doubtful if this figure is accurate.