Monday, September 30, 2019

"Operation Lightfoot": the British attack at El Alamein

The Australian historian describes the plan as attacks in the north and south designed to "trap the enemy in their defenses" and to "destroy them there". The attack in the north was to be executed by XXX Corps, and would try to break into enemy defenses between the sea and the ridge at Miteiriya. They assumed that the main concentration of enemy artillery would be included. They were to destroy all of the enemy artillery. X Corps would then pass through the "bridge head" and push into enemy territory. In the south, XIII Corps was to capture Himeimat. One feature was to send the 4th Light Armoured Brigade to take Daba, the supply areas, and airfields.

The attack would start in moonlight and would have heavy artillery support. The northern attack would have the four infantry divisions: 9th Australian, 51st Highland, 2nd New Zealand, and 1st South African. They would have the 23rd Armoured Brigade in support. The New Zealand Division was to take the western end of Miteiriya Rigde. XXX Corps was to make gaps in the enemy minefields, so that X Corps armor could move through enemy minefields and into enemy territory to the west. X Corps would then turn on the ridge held by the New Zealand Division and land across the enemy supply lines. The plan expected that the British armor would be in place, ready to fight, by "first light". Montgomery hoped that the enemy would be "forced" to fight X Corps on ground that X Corps had chosen. The enemy armored forces would be hit in their flank. The goal was to destroy the enemy armored force so that the rest of their army could be easily captured. To the Australians, this was new territory, because they were usually left in the front at dawn and expected to be attacked by enemy tanks. In this plan, the British tanks were to be out front.

The British armored units had concerns about the plan. There were the usual concerns about clearing gaps in enemy minefields. They were also concerned about the issue of anti-tank guns firing flash-less shots. The thought was there that they might be have taken heavy anti-tank gun losses as they moved their tanks forward. For example, the 22nd Armoured Brigade was warned about the importance of maintaining their tank strength so that they could use their tanks to fight enemy tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Plans for the battle in October 1942

This is Montgomery's original plan for the Second El Alamein. In the north, XXX Corps would make two penetrations of the enemy defenses. X Corp would move forward through the penetrations to take a position astride the enemy supply lines. The hope was that would cause Rommel to use his armored forces to attack X Corps. XIII Corps would attack in the south with the 7th Armoured Division and hoped to draw enemy armor to attack them, making the situation in the north easier for X Corps.

The British had gathered a great deal of information about the German and Italian defensive positions, They had photographs from aerial reconnaissance and photographs taken by ground patrols. One feature of the methods used for photographing was that minefields tended to be concealed. Winds blowing sand helped to hide the minefields. The enemy defenses that had been found were described in intelligence summaries released in week two of October 1942. In the area from the sea coast to Deir el Shein varied from three thousand to seven thousand yards wide. There were actually two bands of defenses that were spread some three thousand yards apart. There were partitions between the bands that were located four or five thousand yards apart. Defenses in the north were very strong with another strong area near West Point 23. The second band of defenses was laid in parallel to the first band. The second was often located on reverse slopes of ridges. This was from Miteiriya to Deir el Shein. South from Deir el Shein, there were gaps in the defenses. South from Himeimat, the defensive positions had not been built up as they were in the north.

Montgomery personally presented the plan to all levels from corps commanders down to battalion commander. The attack in the north would be made by four infantry divisions. An attack in the south would be made by most of two infantry divisions. Two armored divisions would move forward at dawn in the north. A third armored division would move forward in the south. They had some one thousand tanks in the divisions with more available as replacements. They would use close to one thousand guns in the opening artillery barrage. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Planning for the battle in October 1942

There were plans for two attacks on Rommel's supply lines planned prior to the battle. One raid was made at Tobruk while another was made at Benghazi. They failed to damage anything useful. That left the planning to begin for the battle. A major piece was the creation of a supply system to provide what was needed by the army. They wanted not only to create the supply system, but to hide it from the enemy. They also planned to take steps to disrupt the enemy operations. After Auchinleck's operations that had been part of the First Battle of El Alamein, the enemy had constructed defensive positions along the north-south line. Now, like the later static defense of the Atlantic Wall. The defensive positions had considerable depth. They were apparently stronger in the north, near the 9th Australian Division, than they were in the south. The defensive works in the north were about six thousand yards wide. There were minefields, and gaps in the minefields designed so that advancing tanks would be exposed to anti-tank gun fire from the side. There was "an anti-tank gun line" that \ actually included dug in tanks. The guns were concealed so as to be difficult to see. Rommel called his positions "devil's gardens" and thought that they would be effective in stopping a British advance. Rommel's supervisor, Field Marshal Kesselring, was somewhat skeptical about their efficiency. It was true that anti-tank guns, firing at lone range, would make tank operations much more difficult. For a while, they had been able to function as mobile cavalry and could be more effective, but that was to change.

In the end, Montgomery had made two plans for the battle. The first was distributed on 15 September. The second was distributed on 6 October. The second built on the framework of the first plan. Due to the enemy's defensive line, the initial attack would have to be made by infantry. They would set up the force so that the enemy would have to attack the British armor sitting on ground that they had chosen. The British army would not start with an armor attack on enemy armored forces. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Moving towards the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942

One point not yet discussed is the situation in regards to air power. In raw numbers, the British had more than five hundred aircraft in North Africa while the Germans and Italians had about 350. The enemy did have the ability to shift aircraft from Italy and to use aircraft from Crete in North Africa. The raw numbers don't take into account the superiority of German Messerschmitt Bf-109F and G fighters.

Right before the battle began, the Desert Air Force (as it was known) was organized into fighter groups and bomber wings. No. 211 Group had 17 fighter squadrons on hand. No. 212 Group had 8 fighter squadrons. There was No. 3 South African Air Force Wing equipped with three day bomber squadrons. There was No. 232 Wing that had two day bomber squadrons. There were also Americans in the field with the No. 12 Medium Bombardment Group with three bomber squadrons. There was also the No.285 Wing with three reconnaissance squadrons and two flights. There were more squadrons than these, including "night-bombers and long-range fighters".

There was the usual problem in that Churchill was impatient for action, while Montgomery liked to have a nice, tidy plan and operation. Alan Brooke was quoted as saying that Churchill was always a potential source of trouble. Like Hitler, he had an inflated sense of his abilities as a military commander. Churchill was waiting for Alexander and Montgomery's plan to be executed, but Churchill was very aware of the perilous situation with Malta.

They had originally thought that they would be able to attack in September, but with experience of the Battle of Alam el Halfa, they had to rethink their plan. They wanted to attack the enemy during the night, but with the benefit of bright moonlight. They also needed time for training. The full moon in October was on October 24. Alexander chose 23 October as the date for the attack. Montgomery helped Alexander draft the message to be sent to the Prime Minister. Montgomery wrote four points on a piece of paper. They were: "1) Rommel's attack had delayed their preparations. 2) The condition of the moon restricted potential attack dates in September and October. 3) If the attack happened in September, the army would not be sufficiently trained or equipped. 4) An attack in September would be likely to fail while an attack in October would ensure a complete victory". Another factor, we have not mentioned, was the planned Allied invasion of French North Africa on 8 November. Alexander and Montgomery expected a British victory over Rommel would have a favorable impact on the French and Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 16, 2019

"Ali Baba Morshead and his 20,000 thieves"

At Tobruk, the enemy had called the 9th Australian Division the "Rats of Tobruk". They had accepted that name for themselves, at that point in time. Now, the enemy had called them "Ali Baba Morshead and his 20,000 Thieves". They also accepted that name.

Alan Brooke had selected the right man to command the Eighth Army in Bernard Montgomery. He had successfully held the El Alamein area against the German and Italian attack at Alam el Halfa. Montgomery knew how to inspire confidence in his men and was successful. He had a good, solid administration of the Eighth Army now, not the hit-or-miss, always changing plans, that they had seen under Auchinleck. Montgomery had a plan and was preparing to execute the plan.

September and October 1942 was a time for reinforcing the Eighth Army. As they pointed out, some 41,000 men arrived as reinforcements for the Eighth Army. This was from 1 August to 23 October, the big date. They received some "one thousand tanks, 360 carriers, and 8,700 others vehicles. New divisions had arrived with their artillery. They were the 8th Armoured Division and 44th and 51st Infantry Divisions. They also had more artillery in the form of "two medium and six field regiments". By 23 October or so, they had "832 25pdrs, 32-4.5in guns, 20-5.5in, 24-105mm; also 735 6pdr and 521 2pdr anti-tank guns."

The Eighth Army was well-equipped with tanks. They had as many as 1,029 tanks ready for action. They had some 200 tanks ready as replacements, "with a thousand in the workshops". At the same time, the Germans were hurting. They only had 218 tanks ready for action with another 21 in workshops. The Italians had some 278 tanks available for use at the start of the battle.

during early September, 318 American Sherman tanks "arrived at Suez". General Alexander planned to use these to equip three armored brigades. The Shermans were superior to everything the Germans had except for the Pzkw IV Specials, of which they only had about thirty. The British were now equipped with enough vehicles to enable the army to chase the enemy forces across the desert. They never been that well provided for with transport, but now they had it. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The 51st Highland Division is an "affiliate" of the 9th Australian Division. Also, General Morshead is acting XXX Corps commander at least for a week

The 51st Highland Division had just arrived in the desert. A new idea was tried so that the 51st Highland Division was to be an "affiliate" of the 9th Australian Division. Both divisions thought that the affiliation was a good idea and should almost be a standard practice. The Scots thought that the Australians had different ideas about discipline, but the Scots admired the Australian approach to operating. They kept their weapons clean of sand, their slit trenches were well-cared for and equipped. They checked their patrols to make sure that men did not carry identification. The kept quiet at night and did not show any lights. When a patrol returned, they marked information on maps which expanded the group knowledge of enemy positions.

8 September saw General Morshead acting as XXX Corp commander. General Ramsden went on leave in Cairo for a week. It turned out to only be five days, as Montgomery informed Morshead that General Leese would be XXX Corps commander as of 15 September. The officers took a look at the ground for a supposed move forward of 24th Brigade. The secret reason for the move was to "secure" the ground that would be the site used for the infantry attack in the coming offensive. During the night, the 24th Brigade had begun work in new positions. on September 18 to 19, two battalions moved into the positions that had been prepared.

That night, the South African Division moved forward, as did the 9th Australian Division. In two nights, the South Africans moved over and took possession of the 2/28th Battalion positions.

The British forces were abruptly informed in late September that they were going to use American terminology from there on out. For example, what used to be called "Zero Hour" became "H Hour". Operations would start on D Day from now on.

Sitting at El Alamein, the men of the 9th Australian Division came to admire their commander, General Morshead, more than they had when they were sitting at Tobruk. At the same time, the men of the Eighth Army came to increasing confidence in Bernard Law Montgomery. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Assessment of the attack on 1 September 1942

The Germans and their Italian allies now occupied a heavily defended line near El Alamein. The Australian attack on 1 September 1942 was not as successful as they had hoped it would be. Major Gehrmann was the 2/13th Field Company commander during the raid. The Major thought, prior to the attack, that the attack would fail for a number of reasons. His six reasons were:

"1. The force was too small. 2. The front was too narrow. 3. The flanks were insecure. 4. The proposed penetration was too narrow. 5. The information was too scanty. 6. The operation was unsuitable for tanks."

The operation was not a total loss, because they had learned some things that they could apply in the next attack. One thing that stood out was that there were still problems with infantry trying to cooperate with armored units. The tanks did not like being sent into anti-tank gun fire from guns that were beyond the range of tank guns. Despite a new commander, some of the same old issues were at work.

At Alam el Halfa, Montgomery did not spread out the army, but kept the armor and infantry close together. Armor had the benefit of support from the infantry division artillery.

During late summer 1942, the 9th Australian Division battalions were actively patrolling in front of their positions. One objective was to build an order of battle describing the enemy units in their area. The enemy were also actively engaged in patrolling. They also relished the opportunity to fight the Australian patrols that they encountered.

The enemy were busy at night building defensive positions. Their working parties were active and had units covering them. The Australians also noticed that the enemy were making noises to attract their attention. These were described as "tapping of tools on stones, coughing, lighting cigarettes and so on". One night, they had an encounter with another patrol. It turned out that they had fought a South African patrol and wounded some of them. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Operation Bulimba (the right spelling)

The 9th Australian Division "diversionary attack" would launch early on 1 September 1942. The objective was enemy positions near Point 23. They were to start at 5:35am on 1 September. The plan was for the infantry to arrive at the minefield at "first light". The initial push would not involve artillery fire. They would have air support, 9th Australian Division artillery support, and the 7th Medium Regiment also firing in support. Artillery fire would follow 15 minutes after the start of the operation. They would eventually push to the south, "returning at 3pm". The entire group would then pull back to the division area.

The infantry unloaded from their trucks at 5:15am. They got ready at the "taped start line". That area was about a thousand yards ahead of their "forward defended localities". That was about 2,500 yards from their objective. The attack started exactly on time. Their front was about six hundred yards with two infantry companies next to each other. They moved forward to the wire at the enemy minefield "just before the artillery fire lifted". The company on the right took enemy fire and lost men. They eventually were stopped. The left company did better. They followed the artillery barrage and got across the minefield without a problem. Engineer parties started clearing mines. The minefield was about five hundred yards wide.

The left company was well-led and reached their objective. Private Bambling stepped up after his section leader was killed and led the remainder to the enemy positions. After doing well, he was wounded. A tank arrived and fired two rounds to knock out the enemy post. The left company finally took 39 prisoners. They thought that they may have killed as many as 100 Germans. The company had lost two officers and some 35 other men.

The battalion commander, Colonel Ogle had positioned himself about 150 yards into the minefield. When he learned that he right company had lost its commander, he started to move there in his carrier. He hit a mine and "was seriously wounded". He ordered his Major to come forward and take command of the battalion. Major Grace arrived at the battalion headquarters at approximately 6:45am. They were unable to communicate with the companies at that point. Ogle's radio operator in the knocked out carrier kept his radio operating. The carrier was hit by an artillery shell, but the radio operator was able to continue his work.The situation became increasingly tough. Suther's company was to withdraw. They had gone forward behind Snell's company. The fourth company, on the right rear, had better luck. They got to their objective and took "relatively light losses".

The engineers had been able to open gaps in the minefield. By now, they had come under heavy enemy fire. There were mishaps with tanks in the gaps in the minefield. Four tanks had reached Major Grace, but they refused to move without orders from their unit. at 7:30am, two more tanks move forward through a gap. They were asked to collect the other four tanks and be ready to fight what seemed to be an enemy attack. The tanks ended waiting near the battalion headquarters. Major Grace decided at 9am to withdraw the survivors of his battalion. The brigade commander was not really aware of the situation and had told Major Grace to not withdraw, but by the time the message was received, they were withdrawing. They were able to successfully withdraw and got compliments, including from Brigadier Windeyer. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

The aftermath of the attack at Alam el Halfa

In terms of killed, wounded, or missing, the Germans had 1,859 men lost. The Italian losses were 1,051 men. The German-Italian forces lost 49 tanks. The British losses were comparable: 1,750 men lost and 67 tanks. General von Mellenthin thought that the battle was the turning point in the war, the first of many losses that predicted the loss of Germany in the war. Von Mellenthin was a writer and is known for his memoirs, Panzer Battles.

During the German-Italian attack, the 1st South African Brigade launched a raid on Italian forces and brought back 56 Trento Division prisoners. For their part, the German Ramcke Parachute Brigade hit the 9th Indian Brigade which was parked at Ruweisat Ridge. The Germans broke into the Indian position. That triggered a counter-attack by infantry and tanks (presumably Valentines). The Ramcke Brigade had casualties. They lost 11 men "killed or wounded" and had 49 men missing (possibly made prisoner).

We like the Australian "diversionary attack name" "Operation Bulimea. The Australian 20th Brigade "attacked before dawn" on the start day of the battle. They hit West Point 23 as the site of a "bridgehead". It was a long ways fromSidi Abd el Rahman, which dominated the area. They had chosen the target because the ground was suitable for wheeled vehicles.

The attacking force included the 2/15th Battalion along with a 40th RTR squadron (presumably Valentines). Major McIntyre was a 9th Divisional Cavalry officer and he commanded the attacking force. This was intended to be an all-arms force, so there were other units attached for the operation. The 2/15th Battalion had been made available by being replaced by 2/13th Battalion. The relief happened over 20 and 21 August 1942. During the night of 25-26 August, the attacking group would be assembled. The assembly would happen after the code word Bulimea was sent. At dawn, they would take enemy positions near West Point 23. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Battle of Alam el Halfa progresses

On 1 September 1942, you had the 21st Armored Divisions stalled. The 15th Armored Division (we always translate the German to the English equivalent) was trying to execute the penetration and turn to the north. The British used artillery and air attacks against the German armored units. Montgomery was using infantry in the battle. He ordered the 2nd South African Brigade to move to spot north of Alam el Halfa. He alerted the New Zealand Division that they needed to be ready to attack to the south, across the enemy tracks.

By the end of the day on 1 September, the German reconnaissance units had been heavily attacked from the air and were had suffered. The 15th Armored Division was still a threat to Point 132. Fuel supply was a problem that was developing. There was only fuel for operations up to 5 September. The fuel situation actually forced the enemy forces to go into a defensive posture.

On 2 September, there was an opportunity for the British to use armor to hit the rear of the German armor. Montgomery opted to stick with infantry operations. He was going to use the New Zealand Division in the attack. The British now had the sense that they were in a strong position and would succeed. The attack would use the 5th and 6th New Zealand brigades and the 132nd (British) Brigade. The 132nd Brigade would attack on the right with the 5th New Zealand Brigade on the left. Both would have squadrons of Valentine tanks in support.

The attack may have been rushed somewhat while the enemy forces were reinforcing the "most vulnerable point". As it was, the 132nd Brigade started an hour late. They were still very inexperienced compared to the other units. The 5th New Zealand Brigade had more success and had reached their objective. They were able to repel to attacks against them. Montgomery and his staff talked with General Freyberg and agreed that they were better off withdrawing rather than making new attacks. The 5th New Zealand Brigade had "275 casualties" while the 132nd Brigade was worse off, having 697 casualties. The ground attack could wait, as the air attacks on the enemy were being effective. From the start of Alam hel Halfa, the enemy had lost 170 vehicles destroyed and had some 270 damaged. They had also used up a great deal of their fuel.

The enemy was content to withdraw, according to their plan from the start. The British were content to let the withdrawal proceed. The enemy still had a position that included the British minefields where they had lifted mines and were still holding Himeimat, a high point that dominated the area in the southern part of the El Alamein position. Brian Horrocks was not happy letting the Germans hold the land they took, but Montgomery did not want to take any risks, a point that Rommel had noticed. This is based on account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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