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Battle for Egypt

CHAPTER 14 — The Enemy Plan

page 149

The Enemy Plan

IN the advance from Matruh and in the plan for breaking the Alamein Line, Rommel underestimated the effects of his losses in men and equipment, particularly in tanks. He overestimated the endurance of his troops and the ability of his supply services to sustain his forward divisions in fuel and ammunition. He again relied on speed to complete his victory instead of mounting a carefully prepared set-piece battle against the British in their ‘ last ditch ’. He failed to realise the capacity of a British Army to rally and endure when its back is to the wall.

Rommel was with 90 Light Division on the eastern outskirts of Matruh at 1 p.m. on 29 June when the fortress fell. Within the next eighteen hours, some of which must surely have been given to sleep, he made his appreciation of the British dispositions at Alamein, conceived his battle plan, and issued to his formations an outline of the plan with detailed instructions concerning their assembly areas and the time by which they were to be occupied.

Panzerarmee's daily appreciation of 29 June shows fore-knowledge of the resistance likely to be encountered at Alamein. The appreciation has a triumphant tone concerning the fall of Matruh and the continuation of the pursuit, but closes with the guarded note: ‘ It now remained to deal with the fortifications in the narrows of Alamein, the improvement of which had recently been remarkably stepped-up by the British.’ Rommel's personal awareness of the importance and strength of the Alamein Line is revealed in his report to Rome on 30 June: ‘The enemy apparently intends to hold the Alamein Line, the possession of which is of decisive importance for the defence of the Nile delta. … The enemy has been strengthening the already strong defensive line built a long time ago between the impassable Qattara Depression and the coast by constructing a large number of field positions between the main strong points.’

Rommel correctly assumed that the British would fight on a two-corps front and he was not far wrong in defining the boundaries between the corps. He gave the northern sector, however, to ‘the newly arrived 10th Corps’ instead of to 30 Corps and he placed 50 Division in the Alamein Box. Neither his battle map nor his report had any reference to the presence of the South Africans on page 150 the front. He misplaced a brigade of 10 Indian Division in Deir el Abyad instead of Deir el Shein, a mistake of the gravest consequences in the subsequent battle. He did not know that 1 and 2 South African Brigades were covering the gap between the Alamein Box and Deir el Shein. Rommel also placed 7 Armoured Division in the northern sector.

In the southern sector, which was correctly allotted to 13 Corps, the battle map had New Zealand Division in the Qaret el Abd or Kaponga Box, whereas, as has been stated previously, only 6 Brigade was there, the remainder of the Division being about the Deir el Munassib, nine miles further back. First Armoured Division was shown far to the west of Kaponga instead of well to the north and moving east into reserve about Ruweisat Ridge. There was no reference to the condition of 5 Indian Division, which the battle map placed in and about Naqb Abu Dweis.

Rommel planned his battle on this faulty appreciation. He ordered 90 Light Division and Afrika Korps to penetrate the gap between the Alamein Box and the supposed defences in Deir el Abyad. The penetration was to be made under cover of darkness, and 90 Light was then to turn north to the coast to envelop Alamein Box from the east while Afrika Korps moved south over Ruweisat Ridge to attack 13 Corps in rear. One division of the Italian XXI Corps was ordered to attack Alamein Box from the west, astride the coast road and railway. The other was to follow 90 Light Division to attack the box from the south and keep the gap open. The Italian XX Armoured Corps was to move on the same axis as Afrika Korps with the specific task of dealing with New Zealand Division, supposedly in Kaponga Box. The rear of these two corps was to be covered in the gap by a division from the Italian X Corps. The battle map also suggests that this division was to bar the line of retreat of the British force supposedly in Abyad. Littorio Armoured Division was held in army reserve to guard the southern flank and to be ready to exploit the expected breakthrough.

In the light of Eighth Army's known dispositions, Rommel's plan had serious defects. This, however, is not the basis on which the plan should be judged. It has been said: ‘It matters little what the situation actually was at any particular point or moment; all that matters is what the commander thought it was.’1 Although there are cautious notes in the enemy's appreciations of the natural and improved strength of the Alamein narrows, there is no doubt Rommel believed that Eighth Army would again yield to swiftly applied pressure in spite of its command's intention to hold the line. Delays imposed on the advance from Matruh of his armour,

1 Thoughts on War, Liddell Hart (Faber and Faber), p. 218.

page 151 particularly the Italian armour, irked Rommel but only because he considered his tank divisions were tardy and hesitant in dealing ‘with so insignificant an enemy force.’ Rommel's personal belief that the British were still of little account reflected the opinion expressed in Panzerarmee's report on Matruh: ‘The British units, already badly mauled, had again suffered heavy losses. Even New Zealand Division, newly moved up from Syria/Palestine, could not stave off a fresh defeat.’

On the premises that Eighth Army was incapable of holding a defensive line, either through lack of resources or lack of will, perhaps both, Rommel had reason to believe that a bold, swift attack would yield another handsome dividend.

Rommel's failure to learn more of the British dispositions was a weakness in his plan. Precise knowledge of his opponent's dispositions was not vital in the eruption from Agheila in January, in the fluid fighting following the collapse of the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line, and in the battles on the frontier and at Matruh. These operations were within Rommel's definition of tactical boldness. Although most, and generally all of his forces were then given specific tasks, they were not so committed that he could not, cope with any unexpected situation.

In the decisive battle at Alamein, a reverse or even a delayed victory would offset all his previous successes. But Rommel left himself without any forces in hand to influence the course of the fighting. His best formations—90 Light Division, Afrika Korps, and the Italian armour—were given tasks from which they could not be taken without prejudice to the battle as a whole. Rommel also accepted the risk of setting these formations on divergent courses. As soon as 90 Light Division was committed against the eastern face of Alamein Box and the German and Italian armour against the rear of 13 Corps, they were likely to become so tied to their ground that they could not march to the support of each other. The plan demanded concurrent successes in all parts of the field. Failure in one place would be difficult to redeem by success in another.

These ingredients of defeat were present even had Eighth Army been disposed as Rommel thought it to be. If 7 Armoured Division had been in the north, as Rommel supposed, it could have been directed against the flank of 90 Light Division. The march required of Afrika Korps and XX Corps looks attractive on the battle map. The two corps are shown bypassing the Indian brigade supposed to be in Deir el Abyad and moving unopposed over Ruweisat Ridge to attack 13 Corps in rear.

The march, however, was to be made in the dark over unknown ground, factors which would deprive it of the speed essential in page 152 outflanking operations. Nothing was arranged for pinning the New Zealand Division to Kaponga Box, or for depriving 1 Armoured Division of its power of manoeuvre from its supposed location some eight miles west of Kaponga and 18 miles west of Afrika Korps' axis of advance. Rommel evidently presumed that 13 Corps would remain inactive while his forces positioned themselves in its rear. Further, he demanded of Afrika Korps at the end of its march the difficult and hazardous operation of forming front to a flank.

Whether Rommel should have risked the delays inherent in mounting a set-piece battle is a question of opinion. It might have been better for him had he delayed another day. Rommel was well aware that the Alamein Line was the last one on which Eighth Army could make a decisive stand, and his knowledge of history might well have warned him what the British were likely to do when they came to the last ditch. Whatever else he did, however, it seems unquestionable that he should have taken the time to concentrate his forces instead of allowing them, tired and jaded as he knew they were, to enter the battle in dribs and drabs.

Rommel would have been well advised to have stifled his craze for speed in favour of more time for reconnaissance. He might then have found that instead of the battle-worn 50 Division, the refreshed South Africans were at Alamein holding the box and covering the gap. He would have located 18 Indian Brigade in Deirel Shein and so arranged the march of Afrika Korps and XX Corps to avoid that deir as he intended to avoid Deir el Abyad. Ground or air reconnaissance would have disclosed the bulk of the British armour about Ruweisat Ridge, with the result that further thought might have been given to the wisdom of sending Afrika Korps on its long march. Rommel might have learned also that there was only a brigade group in Kaponga and that the remainder of the New Zealand Division in the Deir el Munassib was astride Afrika Korps' path at the point where the Korps was to form front to the west.

Rommel's written orders of the morning of 30 June were characteristically brief and, by British standards, vague. They stated merely: ‘Army is preparing to attack enemy positions on line 720 left 7 – 711 right 14 – 700 right 45.’ These map references included the whole of the Alamein Line from the coast to the Qattara Depression. The orders defined in detail the corps and divisional assembly areas for the attack. Every order included the imperative instruction: ‘Preparations must be completed before 1700 hours’.1

The assembly areas concentrated Panzerarmee against the northern sector of the Alamein Line. The Italian X and XXI Corps

1 6 p.m. Eighth Army time.

page 153 were brought forward to provide a screen for the massing of the striking force comprising 90 Light Division, Afrika Korps, and XX Italian Corps. The XXI Corps had two divisions in line from the high ground on the coast east of Tell el Eisa station to the Bir el Makh Khad area, approximately four miles west of the South African outposts in Alamein Box. The corps was shepherded into its positions by 90 Light, which was earlier on the scene and concentrating between the Rahman track and Tell el Eisa. The Italian X Corps, also with its two divisions in line, screened the assembly areas of Afrika Korps and the depressions west of Alam Burt Sabai el Gharbi and of XX Corps in Sanyet el Murra behind Afrika Korps. Littorio Armoured Division, in its role of army reserve and guard of the southern flank, was given an assembly area north of El Quseir well to the rear. The heavy Italian army artillery was placed in the centre of X Corps and the heavy German army artillery on the right wing of XXI Corps.

Rommel appears to have devoted 30 June to personally briefing his formations on their roles in the attack and to flogging the Italian armour forward. Thus at 10.40 a.m. he signalled XX Corps: ‘I demand that the corps attack and destroy the enemy and reach its objective. The enemy has orders to withdraw.’ Twenty minutes later he signalled: ‘I hope the corps has dealt with so insignificant an enemy force.’ This ‘insignificant force’ was 7 Motor Brigade, which was operating with sufficient vigour to induce the corps' headquarters to report to Rommel: ‘Advance cannot be continued. Attack quite hopeless.’ As the corps on its own admission had twice as many tanks as 7 Brigade, Rommel's annoyance can be appreciated.

Nor had Rommel any sympathy for Littorio, to whom he signalled a little after midday: ‘Enemy withdrawn in front of us. Afrika Korps destroying him. Division must reach assembly area under all circumstances.’ The message suggests that Rommel knew the division had been attacked that morning although the division's detailed reports did not reach him until night.

Rommel's confidence in his German divisions was in marked contrast. He had ordered Afrika Korps to move south-east during the day to give Eighth Army the impression that the main point of the Korps' attack was to be on the southern end of the line, as at Matruh. The approach to the Korps' assembly area was to be made under cover of darkness. Noting the distance it would be required to travel, the Korps recorded in its diary: ‘The fuel state of the divisions just allows them to reach the areas ordered.’ Bad going and the interference of 1 Armoured Division delayed the Korps considerably. At 2.30 a.m. on 1 July, Panzerarmee was advised that the Korps could not reach the assembly area in time to commence the page 154 attack at the zero hour of 4 a.m. The divisions were still on the move at 5.30 and the Korps' headquarters intimated to Panzerarmee that the time the attack could be mounted was not yet certain. The Korps' private view, expressed in its diary, was that the attack might be started by 7 a.m., three hours late.

Rommel was not disturbed by these messages. His only response to them was an order that Afrika Korps should launch its attack from the move if necessary.

Examination of the diaries, orders, reports and messages indicate clearly that Panzerarmee was far from ready for the battle although the fact is not explicitly stated. The faults in Rommel's plans due to his haste have been set out. He has been credited with some virtue in fixing 1 July for the attack, rather than the evening of 30 June as Eighth Army expected. The truth appears to be that he could not reach Alamein in time to attack on 30 June.

Only one division, 90 Light, reached its assembly area with time in hand. But the division was tired and nervous. It had been called back to the road at Matruh the previous afternoon when its men craved sleep and a swim. They had been kept on the move until midnight and had been up again at dawn to resume the advance. On the road, the division was harassed from the air to such an extent that ‘the excellent morale of the morning was somewhat sobered.’1 The sandy terrain made the going difficult and a strong sandstorm, increasing in violence towards noon, added to the discomfort. In its assembly area, reached about 1.30 p.m., the division had to take up outpost positions pending the arrival of the Italians. There was little time for rest and refreshment before the attack.

The battle now about to be joined was the real turning point of the Allied fortunes in the Middle East, more so than the Alamein of the following October which cleared the way for the victorious advance to Tunisia. Two armies, almost equal in strength and in an almost equal state of exhaustion, faced each other. One, having overreached itself in its initial successes, struggled to revive the slackening impetus of its advance; the other, sobered by defeat, was soon to realise that further retreat would mean irretrievable disaster.

Contemporary accounts and records of the period pass quickly over the plans and action of July with such expressions as ‘successful stabilisation’ and ‘recovery of morale.’ This was in fact a month of almost continuous and often heavy fighting in which Eighth Army lost some 750 officers and 12,500 men, took some 7000 prisoners, and stopped the enemy advance. It was a period of partial success and partial failure from which perhaps more lessons may be learned than from total victory or total defeat.

1 90 Light Division diary.