EIGHTY years ago tonight, the silent darkness of the Egyptian desert erupted in flame and hellish noise as the Second Battle of El Alamein began.
A four-hour artillery and aerial bombardment starting at 9.40pm opened the massive assault by the Eighth Army against their German and Italian foes.
Although the bulk of the troops going forward were British, their comrades in arms included divisions from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India, as well as soldiers from Greece, Poland and the Free French.
The battle, masterminded by General Bernard Montgomery, was no glorious charge. Instead, it became a costly slogging match of tanks, planes, field guns and infantry.
The enemy, the Panzerarmee Afrika, lay dug in behind a five-mile-deep barrier of half a million mines (which the Germans called ‘the Devil’s Garden’), through which paths had to be painstakingly cleared. Every action was bitterly fought, with attack and counter-attack, setback and advance.
The Panzerarmee commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, was on sick leave in Germany when hostilities opened, but immediately flew back to take charge. As the days passed, the Allies gradually ground down the enemy in what Montgomery called a ‘crumbling’ strategy – a war of attrition. By November 3, Rommel, who had been told by Hitler to stand to the last – an order the Fuhrer later rescinded – knew his battered troops could take no more. Short of fuel and other supplies, he was down to just 50 tanks and 24 anti-tank guns. The Panzerarmee begin a long retreat westwards into Libya and a week later, the fighting was over, a decisive victory secured.
It came at a high price. Of Montgomery’s 195,000 troops, 4,800 were killed and 9,000 wounded. The 110,000-strong Axis forces lost 9,000 dead, 15,000 wounded and 30,000 captured.
But the battle finally ended the conflict in the Western Desert, which had started in 1940 when the Italians thrust eastwards into British-controlled Egypt from their colony of Libya, potentially threatening the Suez Canal and the vital Middle East oilfields. The Italians fell back in the face of British counter-attacks and in February 1941, Hitler despatched Rommel and the Afrika Korps to shore up Mussolini’s faltering legions.
From there, the fighting swung to and fro along the Mediterranean coastal margin until July 1942, when the Eighth Army – then commanded by General Sir Claude Auchinleck – held back Rommel’s drive towards Cairo in the First Battle of Alamein, a railway halt 60 miles west of Alexandria.
However, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had lost confidence in Auchinleck and decided to replace him with General William Gott. But on August 7, Gott was killed when his plane was shot down and Montgomery took over. In his first address to the troops, he told them that all plans for retreat would be burned. ‘We will fight the enemy where we now stand. There will be no withdrawal and no surrender. If we cannot stay here alive, then let us stay here dead.’
He then set about reinvigorating the Eighth Army with what he regarded as the most important factor in warfare – high morale. He delayed his assault until he had built up an overwhelming force of men and materials, including 2,300 field guns and 1,000 tanks, as well as being given formidable striking power by around 530 planes of the Desert Air Force.
Although seen by many of his peers and immediate subordinates as arrogant and insufferable, and over-cautious in his battle planning, Montgomery succeeded in giving Britain its most comprehensive victory over the Axis. It made him a hero and a household name. But more importantly, Alamein was an incalculable boost for the nation after three years of negative tidings about the war, with Hitler bestriding much of continental Europe and his armies thrusting deep into the Soviet Union.
Churchill trumpeted the triumph for all it was worth, with a memorable speech at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon at the Mansion House on November 10. He said: ‘I have never promised anything but blood, tears, toil, and sweat. Now, however, we have a new experience. We have victory – a remarkable and definite victory. A bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers and warmed and cheered all our hearts.
‘The Germans have received that measure of fire and steel which they have so often meted out to others. The fighting between the British and the Germans was intense and fierce in the extreme. It was a deadly grapple. The Germans have been beaten by the technical apparatus on which they counted to gain domination of the world.’
Then, in a phrase that has reverberated down the years, he identified Alamein as a vital turning point in the war, saying: ‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’
In his memoirs, Churchill wrote: ‘It may almost be said that before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.’
Since 1940, when a German invasion of Britain was seemingly imminent, the Government had ordered that church bells were to be rung only to warn of enemy landings. But to celebrate Alamein, Churchill now decreed that they should peal once more from every belfry in ‘a call to thanksgiving and to renewed prayer’.
On November 15, their sound was heard round the world in a global broadcast by the BBC. It featured the bells of Westminster Abbey, St Cuthbert’s Edinburgh, and the cathedrals of Armagh and Llandaff as well as those of the village church at Prestwich, Lancashire, on the northern outskirts of Manchester. In a gesture of hope for the people of Nazi-occupied Europe, recordings of the bells of Notre Dame, Paris, St Vitus, Prague, and Belgrade Cathedral were also transmitted, to be listened to on secret radios.
Alamein did prove to be a pivotal event of the Second World War, paving the way for the clearance of the Axis from North Africa and the advance into Italy by Anglo-American forces. In February 1943 came the Soviet destruction of the German army at Stalingrad, foreshadowing the final doom of the Third Reich.
Today, 80 years on, a few veterans of Alamein are still with us. Among them is Yorkshireman Raymond Whitwell, aged 103, who recently recalled his pride at being part of the Eighth Army and his respect for Montgomery.
Both the Alamein battles are still officially remembered and commemorated. At the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, a new memorial to the 7th Armoured Division of the Eighth Army – the Desert Rats – is being dedicated today. In Warwick, three military museums are joining to host an exhibition on the battle.
Perhaps most significantly, at Alamein itself the former enemies united yesterday to pay tribute to those who died, with a memorial event organised by the German defence ministry. It was attended by Air Marshal Martin Sampson, a representative from Britain, as well as officials from Italy, Greece and Egypt.