|North African Campaign - Part II: Come Out & Fight!|
|by Pete Gade|
A Line in the Sand
They’d spent the night listening to the sappers ply their trade.
Yesterday, at last light, the German armor had withdrawn. Beaten badly, they left roughly 15 disabled tanks in the field, which provided prime targets for nighttime patrols seeking to finish the job with well-placed demolition charges. But now, at daybreak, the sappers were catching some much-needed rest while the British tank crews waited for “Jerry” to come again and press the attack once more.
The lads sat patiently atop the ridge they were charged to defend. They kept an eye open for a rising line of dust on the horizon while waiting for orders that would swing them towards some point on the line where a little help was in order. Even the American tank crews, which had been dispersed throughout the brigade for some combat experience, kept steady. The first of their lot to see action on North African soil, they gained a bit of temperance and a sense that the Germans can be beaten.
They weren’t the only ones who needed this lesson, though. The Brits had seen too many defeats up until now….
The whole affair was going according to plan, and Rommel was getting an absolute snoutful every time he knocked up against the British line. It was about bloody time.
The call came—Panzers engaging adjacent armored squadron … flank the lot of them and stop them cold. Those Yanks would get a real taste of things this go-around. A disquieting little rider came tacked onto the orders: it seems Jerry’s brought up the Mark IV Specials. Those long guns could really make short work of things.
Speed, and surprise, meant everything now.
How the Mighty Have Fallen
In August 1942, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel desperately needed a break. Despite cornering his British foes in Egypt, he harbored grave doubts about the Axis situation in North Africa. Strangely, he was one of the few.
On the surface, both Rommel and his forces appeared unbeatable. His very name conjured up all manner of mythic deeds, which predicated an order on the part of his enemy not to call him by name unless absolutely necessary. With an Axis victory in North Africa seemingly on the wing, the British fleet had evacuated Alexandria. Chimneys in Cairo spewed the ash of burning military documents, and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini arrived in North Africa for his victory lap around this seat of British colonial power.
The stage appeared set for a dictator’s march, but Rommel nevertheless wallowed in doubt—and with good reason.
Shortages of gas and materiel hampered his plans for dealing a finishing blow, a situation that became graver with each passing day. Already, during the Battle of First Alamein in July, he picked and probed at the British lines in search of a weak point and came up empty. Even then, his supply lines had stretched hundreds of miles of desert. Maintaining momentum in that environment had proved difficult, and the British, though pinned against their last lines of defense in Egypt, were mere miles from their supply head. Time worked in their favor as goods and replacements poured in.
But a boon perhaps greater than any buildup of troops fell into the lap of the British in August 1942, something they desperately needed—binge.
Think of binge as a fighting spirit, something Britain and her allies had in short supply. Come the summer it ran through the ranks in a way not seen since the short-lived liberation of Tobruk in December 1941, its source largely traced to one man, (then) Lt. General Bernard Law Montgomery, or “Monty.”
Up until this point, it’s safe to say that the British harbored loads of self-doubt after receiving so many beatings by the Germans and Italians. British plans were laden with all manner of contingencies for falling back, and falling back again, all the way to Iraq if need be, even though they were fighting for their lives in Egypt.
Monty would have none of it. Promoted to the commander of the British Eighth Army along with another change that placed General Harold Alexander as Commander-in-Chief, North Africa, Monty scrapped all plans for retreat from Egypt. He meant business, stating, “If we can’t stay here alive, then let us stay here dead.” He meant to dig in and rob Rommel of the battle he so craved, the sort of battle in which he excelled—that of maneuver.
Essentially, Monty drew a line in the sand and dared Rommel to come hither. He would rebuff Rommel’s last shot at glory, and then turn the tables with an offensive, “[That] will hit Rommel for six right out of Africa … he is definitely a nuisance.”
Rommel did come … at the Battle of Alam Halfa.
Monty prepared differently from his predecessors. He favored defending key locations and holding back a large portion of reserves that could answer any emerging danger. Moreover, he clung onto the notion of conducting an offensive rather than eking out a tenuous existence on the defensive. Indeed, the British material stores grew and grew as those of the Axis winnowed down. It was just a matter of time before he would have his wish, provided he could stave off one last thrust from Rommel.
His plans paid off. As the battle raged, the dug-in defenses held, and mobile reserves cooled off localized hot spots. Rommel’s old trick of luring over-exuberant armor into traps largely failed. Monty was staying put. Even Rommel groused in utter frustration, “The swine isn’t attacking.”Scenario: Come Out & Fight!
This scenario represents a typical armored engagement during the Battle of Alam Halfa. A German force attacks dug-in British armor, which is supported by reserves called in to aid in the defense of a key position.
Many discount Monty’s accomplishments in North Africa, stating that he was an over-cautious general who reaped the benefits his predecessors’ hard work. Certainly, he inherited a troop disposition that predicted the general region in which Rommel would attack, and benefited from intercepted communications that tipped off the time and place. Still, he did gamble. Certainty only comes in hindsight, and if the predictions and intelligence had proved wrong, the Battle of Alam Halfa could have ended up quite differently.
Indeed, the attack came from the south and Monty checked the German armored thrusts with his own armored reserves. Once the dust settled in early September, the British yielded a just few miles of desert in exchange for a grand transformation: Rommel the hunter had become Rommel the hunted.
Come October of 1942, that would play out in grand fashion.