|North African Campaign - Part III: Shoot the Gap|
|by Pete Gade|
The desert, quivering in the heat haze, became a scene that defies sober description. It can be discerned only as a confused arena clouded by the bursts of high explosives, darkened by the smoke of scores of burning tanks and trucks, lit by the flashes of innumerable guns, shot through by red, green and white tracers, shaken by heavy bombing from the air and deafened by the artillery of both sides.
-- On the armored engagement at Aqaqir Ridge, 2 November 1942, as recounted in a quote attributed to a British officer.
An Army in Retrograde
It was only a matter of time before PanzerArmee Afrika fell ill. Pathologically speaking, it had shown signs of a coming malaise for months.
Throughout the Battles of First Alamein and Alam Halfa in the late summer of 1942, the Italian and German forces lacked the punch they’d displayed in the first half of the year. The dash and drive that pinned the British and Commonwealth forces in Egypt, their last North African bastion, had been missing. Nearly every pick, probe, or grand sweeping maneuver came up short. Britain and her allies not only stood pat, but had also carved out a number of striking defensive victories.
As illustrated in the earlier scenarios that make up this series, the Axis forces found themselves plagued by an utter shortage of men, materiel, and morale which was symptomatic of an army stretched to its utter limits. By September 1942, plagued by thousands of desert miles separating serviceable ports from the front lines and the inherent troubles of transporting supplies across the Mediterranean, the Axis forces lazed in the desert like an underfed giant. They could lash out with great force but their mobility was limited. Meanwhile, the British and Commonwealth forces, close to their supply heads, grew ever stronger through fresh troops and shipments of armor streaming into Egypt.
At this point, the Axis forces took what was to then a very British approach. They dug in. Rommel, the commander of PanzerArmee Afrika also went to earth, returning to Europe to recover from exhaustion.
While there, he sought an audience with Hitler where he beseeched his Fuehrer for the steel and men he needed to finish the job in North Africa. Nothing of the sort was forthcoming. The situation in Russia absolutely consumed Hitler’s material and psychological machinations, and perhaps with fair reason. By September 1942, the struggle for Stalingrad was well underway. In just a few months it would earn its place one of humanity’s most brutal displays of disregard for human life. Some three million lives, civilian and soldierly alike, would die in its cauldron of ice and fire—a figure that stands in grim comparison to the roughly 350,000 forces in total present along the Egyptian frontier in the fall of 1942.
Historians often paint the North African campaign as a “sideshow.” But neither Rommel, nor Montgomery, commander of the British 8th Army, saw it as such. Both knew that one good punch would drive an already dazed Axis force to its knees.
That blow came during the Second Battle of Alamein on October 23, 1942, and Rommel was still in Europe when it fell.
The Second Battle of Alamein
Montgomery’s original plan, Operation Lightfoot, focused on an approach perhaps more akin to WWI warfare than the standards of the day. At 10 pm on the 23rd, the Axis forces cowered as nearly 1,000 Allied guns fired 125 tons of artillery over a period of five and one-half hours. Many British and Commonwealth gunners themselves went mad under the relentless hammering of rounds.
Lines of anti-tank guns and sweeping minefields offhandedly called “Devils Gardens” came under fire, which prepared the way for an infantry assault that would clear lanes through which assaulting armor could pass. For two days, the armies fought each other to a standstill. Despite resolute showings by the infantry, British tanks failed to break through. Winding lines of armor got lost in the lanes cleared by the infantry, and German anti-tank guns picked away at the ant-like streams that searched for a relatively safe gap.
In response, British Prime Minister Churchill reportedly bellowed, “Is it really impossible to find a general who can win a battle?” At the same time Rommel returned to Africa, almost eerily on cue in the wake of this remark.
The British and Commonwealth infantry pressed on, though. One of the battle’s most legendary engagements, at a location known as “Snipe,” just south of the feature known as Kidney Ridge, claimed dozens of Axis tanks attempting to dislodge the stalwart men of 2nd Battalion (Rifle Brigade), First Armored Division. Combating the Panzers with a handful of 6-pounder anti-tank guns, they fended off two armored assaults and reduced the German 21st Panzer Division to a smoldering husk.
On November 2nd, Montgomery unleashed Operation Supercharge with the aim of diminishing Rommel’s last stores of fuel and flat-out overrunning the positions the British and Commonwealth forces had deliberately “crumbled,” as Montogomery put it, for days. A gallant, yet ghastly, charge by the 9th Armored Brigade overran German anti-tank gun positions—at a cost of 102 out of 128 tanks. They pried open a gap—a small one—but a gap nevertheless.
This paved the way for the grand armored engagement Montgomery craved, and at Aqaqir Ridge, 120 German and Italian tanks met the British 1st Armored Division.
Breakout was just one victory away.
Scenario: Shoot the Gap
This scenario represents a typical armored engagement during the Second Battle of Alamein, which features a mixed force of German and Italian tanks facing some of the newer Sherman tanks produced by the United States.
The battle at Aqaqir continued throughout the day, and left the Axis forces with somewhere between 30 and 50 tanks operating on the entire front. Sources vary on the exact figure, but the result remains beyond question —PanzerArmeeAfrika had its back broken and Rommel, the Desert Fox, had to turn tail.
Churchill had found his general, the one who could win a battle, and he placed a fine point on Second Alamein with the sort of eloquence for which he is known: This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
He was quite correct. On November 8th, the Americans landed in Morocco and Algeria, which eventually placed Rommel’s forces in a headlock from which they would not escape.