Why was Rommel defeated at El Alamein?

Rommel at El Alamein

The Battle of El Alamein was the most important battle of the North African conflict between German and Italy and the British Empire. The battle, which was in reality, a series of battles, has entered military legend and it is one of the best-known battles of WWII. The battle was involved some of the most famous generals of the war, including Bernard Montgomery and Erwin Rommel. The battle was a turning point in the war. It was the first time that the western allies had decisively defeated the Germans on the battlefield and allowed them to clear the German and Italians out of North Africa and ultimately to invade Italy. Why did the Germans fail at El Alamein? The Germans and Italian were doomed because that lacked a sufficient number of troops, relied on inadequate supplies, and had unrealistic objectives.

Background

Montgomery at El Alamein

Hitler was not interested in North Africa. He was quite happy to dominate Europe and to leave the control of Africa to the British and French.[1] The German dictator was actually an admirer of the British Empire. Nazi Germany only became involved in North Africa because of their alliance with Italy. Mussolini had grandiose dreams of recreating the Roman Empire and he sought to control North Africa, in the wake of the British and French defeats in 1940. This led him to order his army to attack British controlled Egypt from the Italian colony of Libya.[2]

However, the Italians despite having numerical superiority and tactical surprise did not achieve their goals. The British, along with troops from the British Empire easily repelled the Italians. The Italian army was on the verge of defeat and it looked like it would lose its colony in North Africa. Mussolini asked Hitler for help and he dispatched some German divisions under the command of a gifted commander Erwin Rommel. [3] The German divisions, mostly Panzer divisions, came to be called the Africa Korps. Rommel defeated a British offensive and in 1942, he took Tobruk and this opened the way to Egypt.

After this victory, he and Hitler beliezed that they had an opportunity to seize Egypt from the British and close the Suez Canal to Britian. This would have disrupted trade and supply links between Britain and her Empire and greatly weakened its war efforts.[4] Rommel embarked on the all-out invasion of Egypt. He commanded a joint Italian and German army. Because of the terrain his army was motorized and the invasion was spearhead by tanks or panzers. The British 8th army was forced to retreat into north western Egypt.[5] Here they waited for what they saw as the inevitable attack from Rommel and his Afrika Korps.


First Battle of El Alamein

German Tank hunters at the First Battle of El Alamein

The Afrika Korps advanced into Egypt and made his way by the coastal route to Alexandria. If he could seize that city, then he would have been in a position to challenge the British and their control of the Suez Canal. The British under the command of General Claude Auchenlik adopted a defensive posture and waited for the Germans at El Alamein.[6] The Eight Army was dug in around El Alamein and it was composed of British, Australian, New Zealand, South African and Indian elements. The 8th Army laid many miles of mines and dug many tank traps. The battle took place only 60km form Alexandria. The Allies were close to their supply bases in Egypt and the Axis forces supply lines had become stretched in contrast. Rommel launched a direct attack on the British positions.[7] Rommel had the superiority in armor and he tried to use his panzers to break through the Allied lines. However, Auchelick had superiority in artillery and his forces had been well dug in. This allowed their lines to hold.

The Allies then launched a counter attack, Rommel used a brilliant defensive strategy to repel the attacks[8]. The Allies had denied Rommel victory and they had stopped his advance to Alexandria. The western forces had suffered heavy casualties some 13000 killed and wounded. The Germans, however, were still in Egypt and remained only a day’s drive from Alexandria. [9] Churchill was not happy with this and he had Auchinleck replaced as commander of the 8th Army.

Initially, General William Gott was appointed as its commander but he was killed in a plane crash. Churchill then had Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery appointed and he took command of the 8th army on the 13th August. Rommel could have withdrawn at this stage and given that his supply lines had been overextended this perhaps should have been his strategy. However, he and Hitler had become obsessed with taking Alexandria and the Afrika Korps remained in El Alamein. [10]

Second Battle of El Alamein

Rommel at El Alamein

The Germans expected a massive Allied counter-attack. Montgomery used a lull in the fighting to strengthen his position. In particular, he received many new tanks This meant that the allies had the advantage in terms of tanks. Montgomery to build up his forces until he had twice the number of men under his command as had Rommel.[11] The Germans mined and fortified a defensive line in considerable depth and strength. Rommel had selected his defensive position well and his flanks were protected by the sea to the north and to the south, by an impenetrable desert.

Rommel directed the planning for the second battle of El Alamein. He personally supervised the defensive line that was intended to repel the British counter-attack. The German strategy was to have a set piece battle, one that would draw the British and their allies into a brutal war of attrition that would sap their will to fight. Then Rommel with his panzers would launch a counter-attack and he would go on and seize Alexandria. Montgomery’s objective was simple it was to break the German defensive line, once this was broken the Germans would be forced to evacuate Egypt.[12] The British commander of the 8th army placed great faith in his numerical superiority in tanks and men. His army also had the support of the Royal Air Force that was increasingly able to dominate the skies and to nullify the threat posed by the Luftwaffe.

After six more weeks of carefully building up the 8th army it was ready to go on the attack. The Allies had some 200,000 men and 1,000 tanks under Montgomery. They faced some 115,000 Germans and Italians with some 550 tanks. It should be noted that many of the Axis forces were poorly armed and trained Italian soldiers.[13] Montgomery began the attack with a massive artillery barrage against the entire German line. Then he ordered his divisions to attack to the north of the German line and to the south. At this stage Rommel was not present at the battle. He had returned to Germany for treatment as he was genuinely ill. His subordinates, followed his plans for the battle very closely.

The initial Allied assault only made limited advances and the German lines continued to hold. Montgomery was a methodical men and he used massed artillery with infantry attacks with limited objectives to weaken the German lines. At this time the Axis divisions had begun to run short of supplies and ammunition. Increasingly, it was only the brilliance of the Afrika Korps forces that prevented a British breakthrough.[14] The fighting lasted for ten days. The British advances were slowed down by minefields and they sustained many casualties because of mines. Many tanks lost their tracks as they advanced. The battle began to resemble a WWI battle and it was not typical of the North African campaign which was characterized by highly mobile units fighting each other.[15]

After some days of this type of fighting, Montgomery gambled on an assault on a broad front. New Zealand and Australian Divisions backed by British armor attacked some of the most heavily protected areas of the German lines. This caused panic among the Germans as it was unexpected and the defensive line came under increasing strain. The German commander, General George Strumme went forward to inspect the line but died of a heart attack. He was replaced by his subordinate Major-General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma.[16] He managed to steady the line and ordered the panzers into battle. The Germans suffered many losses, but Thoma continued to order further counter-attacks. Montgomery used his forces to continue to make limited advances.

Rommel returned to North Africa and had begun to direct the battle. He stiffened the German and Italian resistance. However, the Axis Divisions had sustained unsutianbale losses and the defensive line began to crumble. Montgomery order his forces to attack on a broader front and during this assault the German commander, on the ground Thoma was killed. Rommel asked Hitler for permission to retreat he initially refused but he later gave his consent. This probably saved the Germans and Italians from complete annihilation as it allowed them to withdraw in good order.

Aftermath

The results of the two battles of El Alamein was a decisive victory for the allies. Rommel Axis forces suffered catastrophic losses and the Afrika Korps was never to pose a threat to the Allies in Egypt again. The British went on the offensive in North Africa and they soon had taken much of Libya. In early 1943 the Americans landed in North Africa and the Germans and Italians were forced to retreat to Tunisia. The defeat of the German forces at the second battle of El Alamein meant that the British and the Imperial army received a great morale boost. As Churchill noted "Before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat."[17] Montgomery in his memoirs noted that the victory had an immediate and discernable impact on the single most important factor in war, that is morale. After El Alamein, the British believed that they could beat the Germans at anytime and anywhere. [18]

Axis Strategy

One of the reasons for the failure of the Germans at El Alamein was the fact that Rommel had been overambitious. He was a brilliant general and leader and this earned him the name of the ‘Desert Fox’. However, he was also reckless and many German historians do not believe that he had the same tactical and strategic brilliance of a Von Manstein or a Model. Rommel’s plans for the invasion of Egypt and the conquest of the country was flawed form the start.<ref. Lucas, p. 256</ref> The first major problem was that it is recognized throughout military history that an attacker may need a numerical advantage of up to three to one, in order to succeed. Rommel did not have any such advantage.

Previous victories against the odds such as at Tobruk meant that he believed that his Afrika Korp could achieve anything. Then there was the issue of Hitler and his orders not to surrender under whatever circumstance. Rommel after his advance had been checked at the first battle of El Alamein should have considered retreat. He knew Hitler’s orders and he was in a sense restricted in his actions. While Rommel’s decision to establish a defensive line a good idea he should have considered having it in Libya. Rommel’s actual handling of the battles of El Alamein was brilliant and he saved the German and Italian armies during his brilliant tactical retreat from the battle. However, his original objectives during the invasion of Egypt had been too ambitious and did not match his resources and this led to the Afrika Korps defeat.[19]

Supply Lines

RAF p-40 Kittyhawk in Africa, 1942

The Germans and the Italians supplies all came from Libya. The had to be supplied ultimately from Italy and Germany. The Axis forces never had enough supplies. This was because the majority of their supplies came by sea and the Allies restrict Axis shipping. This meant that Rommel had an insecure supply line, although he could source his oil from Libyan oil fields.

Then to compound the problems with supplies, the Axis army in Egypt had an overextended supply lines. This meant that after the first Battle of El Alamein that they did not have the reinforcements that they needed to replace their losses in men and material. Indeed, during the second Battle of El Alamein, the Axis began to run short of key supplies such as shells and gasoline. The lack of supplies meant that they Axis were at a decided disadvantage during the Battle of El Alamein. [20] Furthermore, not only had Montgomery been well-supplied they had received the latest weaponry including the Sherman tank, which was every bit as good as the German panzers.

Allied Air Superiority

Historians and the public have long acclaimed the 8th army as the victors at El Alamein. However, the RAF played a key role in the battle. After the first Battle of El Alamein, the British moved new squadrons to the battlefield and they kept up the pressure on the Germans form the skies.[21] During the battle they had been able to achieve total air superiority. The RAF in particular helped to destroy many of Rommel’s tanks, especially during the counterattacks during the second battle. Without this the panzers could have turned the tide of the battle. Montgomery played tribute to the RAF and especially lauded the close air support that they provided. This was in contrast to the Luftwaffe and the Royal Italian air force, which did not offer the Axis ground units any support. The RAF helped to tilt the balance in the Allies favor and made a great contribution to Montgomery’s victory.[22]

Conclusion

The Battle of El Alamein was to prove a turning point in the war. It convinced the British that they could beat the Germans and that Hitler was not invincible. The Axis defeat at El Alamein meant that North Africa would be lost to Hitler and Mussolini. The defeat was due to a variety of factors. These included insufficient Axis numbers, overextended supply lines, and Allied air superiority. The main factor in the Axis defeat at El Alamein was the original strategy it was overambitious and did not take into account the limited resources of the Axis and the ability of the Allies to supply and reinforce the 8TH army.

References

  1. Carell, Paul The Foxes of the Desert (New York, Bantam Books, 1962), p. 17
  2. Carell, p. 67
  3. Irving, David. Rommel: The Trail of the Fox. The Search for the True Field Marshal Rommel (London: Focal Point. 2009), p. 234
  4. Irving, p. 233
  5. Irving, p. 236
  6. Latimer, Jon. Alamein (London, John Murray, 2002), p. 112
  7. Latimer, p. 114
  8. Carell, p. 134
  9. Lucas, James Sydney. War in the Desert: The Eighth Army at El Alamein. (Beaufort Books. New York, 1983), p. 67
  10. Lucas, p. 178
  11. Latimer, p. 145
  12. Lucas, p. 118
  13. Lucas, p. 148
  14. Lucas, p. 221
  15. Strawson, John. El Alamein: Desert Victory J M Dent, London. 1991), p 234
  16. Strawson, p. 89
  17. Carell, p 117
  18. Carell, p 345
  19. Strawson, p. 156
  20. van Creveld, Martin. Supplying War; Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 234
  21. van Creveld, p. 235
  22. Strawson, p. 234

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