Before entering into a discussion of this phase of the fighting in North Africa it is necessary that we briefly review some of the important events that led up to the fighting in this area and eventually to Rommel’s second Advance into Egypt in 1942. World War II started in 1939 with Germany’s conquest of Poland. By the end of June 1940 the Nazis had occupied Norway and Denmark and had completed their campaign against Belgium, Holland, and France, and were preparing to launch their aerial blitz on England. As soon as it was evident that France – was going to fall and that the time to reap the rewards was at hand, Italy joined the conflict on the side of Germany. On June 10 1940, Mussolini immediately struck outwards from his bases in East Africa against the British and by mid-August had overrun British Somaliland. By September 13, Italy was ready to act against the British in North Africa so Gen Graziani started his invasion of Egypt. This offensive was launched from inside the Libyan frontier and followed the coastal route eastwards. The British, because of being greatly outnumbered, withdrew according to plan to an organized defense line near Mersa Matruh. Gen Graziani decided to rest on his laurels and halted at Sidi Barrani. In December 1940 the British under Gen Wavell launched their attack on the Italians. By early February 1941 the British forces had destroyed or captured practically the whole of Gen Graziani’s army and had advanced to El Agheila. Gen Wavell’s army was depleted in order to send assistance to the Greeks and he was therefore prevented from advancing on toward Tripoli.
In order to prevent Italy from losing the Axis foothold in North Africa, it was now necessary for Germany to come to the aid of her weaker partner. Hitler quickly demonstrated his interest in keeping this theater of operations active by sending two German light armored divisions and one of his most able commanders, Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, who took over the command of all Axis forces in the North African Theater. During the month of March 1941 Rommel’s Axis Army struck the British depleted forces and by April had forced them to withdraw to Mersa Matruh. On withdrawing from Tobruk, General Wavell had left a garrison of some 10,000 men to hold that port and create a thorn in the side of Rommel’s long supply line. On June 16, Gen Wavell initiated his second offensive against the Axis forces in North Africa. After three days of bitter and costly fighting the attack expended itself with the two opposing forces occupying approximately the same position as when the attack was started. On June 22, Germany started her invasion of Russia. After Gen Wavell’s unsuccessful second offensive he was relieved of his command of the British Forces in the Middle East. His successor was Gen Auckinleck, who immediately divided his command into the Eighth Army (North Africa) and the Ninth Army (Palestine and Iran-Jordan). The Eighth Army was placed under the command of General Sir Alan Cunningham. On November 18, Gen Auckinleck launched an offensive with his Eighth Army, which had by early in January carried the British to within a short distance of El Agheila. During this advance Gen Ritchie had replaced Gen Cunningham as commander of the Eighth Army. Gen Rommel immediately carried out a short counter-offensive in late January which forced the British to retire to the vicinity of Gazala where they remained until Gen Rommel struck with his second offensive on May 26.
From Cairo to Tunisia, a distance of approximately 1900 KM, is generally continuous desert. This desert extends southwards for almost 1600 KM. Only along the coastline is there sufficient rainfall to sustain any vegetation and this vegetation consists of scattered drought resistant weeds and bushes. From Alexandria to Salum the coastline is a flat level plain inland for a distance of approximately 40 KM. This flat coastal strip is characterized by being either a dust bowl in dry weather or a quagmire after rains. Beginning about one 150 KM east of Salum this coastal strip is separated from the inland desert plateau by a rugged rocky wall or escarpment. This escarpment varies in height and steepness but is generally considered an obstacle sufficient to prevent the consideration of movement of large bodies of troops and equipment to or from the inland plateau except through five or six passes. The coastal strip is generally much narrower westward of Salum and in some spots the inland plateau closes in toward the sea and ends in a steep rocky wall against the waters edge. Westward of Salum the escarpment is not so regular or well defined but is generally made up of a series of steps leading up to the inland plateau. Westward from Derna, to south of Benghazi in northern Cyrenaica is found the rolling hills of Jebel Achdar. This hilly country extends for about 250 KM and gradually levels off into an escarpment which curves to the southwest and gradually decreases in height until it is lost in the desert in the area slightly south of Benghazi. It can easily be seen that from the Nile River to El Agheila an army could organize a defensive line with its northern tip anchored on the Mediterranean. There are only two spots along this entire distance where natural southern anchors can be found. These two terrain features are the Quattara Depression in the east and the Wadi el Feregh in the West. Both of these features are composed of salt marshes and terrain that can be traversed by man but prohibit the use of mechanized elements or large bodies of troops and their equipment. Both are of such size that it would be disastrous for an army to attempt to go around them therefore the areas between the Quattara Depression and the Mediterranean, and the area between the Wadi el Feregh and the Mediterranean are the most favorable spots for a defensive line.
It must be remembered that in this vast North African area where the problems of supply are of such importance to any attacking force that it is generally not possible for the advancing force to bypass the major opposing force by a southern route and continue to advance. Possession of the desert ground in itself is of no importance. Clear supply lines are of such great importance that the opposing force must be destroyed. The primary route of land communication through this entire desert fighting arena was a macadam road following the coast from Alexandria to Tripoli. By the time that Gen Rommel launched his second offensive in May 1942, the British had extended the single line broad gauge railway westward from Mersa Matruh to the vicinity of Tobruk. Between Alexandria and Tripoli, Benghazi is the only port capable of handling the supplies necessary to sustain an army operating in the field. There are a number of small harbors such as Tobruk, Derna, Bardia, Salum, and Sidi Barrani, but these have such poor harbors and facilities that each is capable of handling only a small portion of the needs of a major force.
General Situation – 7 February 1942 / 25 May 1942
The early spring of 1942 was a period of intense preparation in North Africa by both the Axis and the British. Each side knew that the opposing force was putting forth the utmost effort to acquire the necessary replacements and equipment to enable it to launch its attack. Gen Rommel’s supply line was much shorter than that of the British. He was using Benghazi and Tripoli as ports to receive his shipments from across the Mediterranean. The British were forced to transport the major portion of their supplies by land across the desert from the Suez Canal. It required a four months transit period for equipment to be transported from the factory to the front lines. The Axis forces required about four weeks. During this period of awaiting supplies, each army was re-grouping and building up their position. Gen Ritchie realized that more than likely Gen Rommel would be capable of attacking prior to the earliest possible offensive date of the British, therefore he was able to concentrate on choosing and strengthening the most suitable ground to defend.
Since the strength of the British forces and their location must determine to a great extent Gen Rommel’s plan of attack, let us take a look at the forces and equipment available to both commanders. At the time that Gen Rommel attacked, the British had numerical superiority in both men and equipment. The Eighth Army had approximately 740 tanks against 570 for the Axis, and 125000 men facing Gen Rommel’s 113000. The British likewise had numerical superiority in aircraft and artillery. These figures perhaps do not give a too accurate picture because in tanks, antitank guns, and aircraft it must be admitted that the Axis equipment as a whole was superior to that of the British. The only tanks that the British had that could fight the German Mark III and IV tanks on equal terms were the newly arrived US M-3 Grant, and the British had only 150 of these against Gen Rommel’s 230 Mark III and IVs. In antitank guns the German 88-MM self-propelled all-purpose gun was equal to or superior to any antitank gun of the British, including the few recently acquired six-pounders. It was these 88-MM guns that were to play such a decisive role in the fighting of this campaign.
Gen Ritchie had decided to hold a defensive line running generally south from Gazala for a distance of some forty miles. The southern end of the line was at Bir Hacheim. This entire line was protected by a heavy mine field extending from Gazala south around Bir Hacheim and thence in a northeasterly direction to the vicinity of Trig Capuzzo. Instead of attempting to organize and defend with troops the entire distance of this line he organized certain areas or boxes for all-round protection. These boxes were reinforced with artillery and those in the most critical areas were enclosed with mine fields. The bulk of the British Armor and certain infantry units were hold in mobile reserve in the rear of the line in the general vicinity of El Adem. The primary units which Gen Ritchie had and their original locations were :
– 1st South African Division (32nd AT Brigade) – Northern sector
– 50th Infantry Division (1st Army Tank Brigade) – Knights Bridge area
– Fighting French – Bir Hacheim
– 2nd South African Division – Tobruk
– 5th Indian Division – North of El Adem
– British 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions – South Knights Bridge
– 7th Motor Brigade – vicinity of Bir El Guibi
– 3rd Indian Motor Brigade and 29th Indian Brigade – South El Adem
– (purpose of the last three separate units was for the protection of that flank)
Rommel’s Army was composed of the following five Italian Infantry Divisions :
– Division Bologna
– Division Sabrata
– Division Trento
– Division Breaioa
– Division Pavia
One Italian Motorized Division
– Division Trieste
One Italian Armored Division
– Division Ariete
The DAK consisting of the :
Rommel’s plan of attack on the Gazala line called for a frontal attack by the five Italian Infantry Divisions on the northern sector of the line to cover the main attack of the DAK which was to be a “short right hook” around the southern end of the British line. The Italian Trieste Motorized Division and the Ariete Armored Division were to follow closely behind the DAK and destroy the Fighting French at Bir Hacheim. The DAK, after enveloping the British left flank, was to destroy the British armor in the area south of El Adem. The Italian Motorized Corps was to complete the destruction of the Fighting French at Bir Hacheim and join the DAK in a coordinated attack toward the west to destroy the remaining British forces in the Gazala – Trig Capuzzo area. Rommel’s time schedule called for the offensive to begin on the night of May 26 to 27 and for the coordinated attack by the DAK and Italian Motorized Corps on the northern British forces to be launched on May 28.
The Attack on the Gazala Line
During the afternoon of May 26, the British realized that the Axis offensive was about to be launched. Large movements of Axis tanks and troops were observed moving toward the southern sector of the line. At the same time Rommel was carrying out extensive movements in rear of his northern sector for the purpose of confusing the British as to the direction from which to expect the main thrust. The Axis forces were successful in achieving the goal of confusing the British as to the direction of the main attack because it was not until the morning of the 27 that the British command fully realized that the main effort was being made to the south. One fault in the British communication system was realized during the early phase of the operation, Gen Ritchie’s headquarters was the only command echelon tied in by radio with several of the smaller units under its direct control and with the RAF and as a result, some of these smaller British units who were protecting the southern flank were not informed of the latest information on movement of the DAK.
By the morning of May 27, the Afrika Korps had circled Bir Hacheim, and by using the British mine field to protect their left flank and employing the 90.LAD, which was heavy in antitank guns, to protect their right flank, was headed in the direction of El Adem. It had already struck and destroyed the 3rd Indian Brigade and forced the 7th Motor Brigade to withdraw. Major elements of the British 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions rushed into position to give battle to the DAK, and during the day a great tank battle was fought in a large area southwest of El Adem. This tank battle was very confused and quickly broke up into a number of fierce small unit engagements. The losses of armor on both sides were really important. The Italian Ariete and Trieste Divisions which had struck at Bir Hacheim ran into a stone wall. The Fighting French simply closed the doors to their box and had stopped every attack the Italians threw at them. The mine fields around Bir Hacheim took a heavy toll on Italian armor. Likewise the Italian infantry divisions attacking on the northern sector were repulsed without too much difficulty by the British 1st South African and 50th Divisions. At the end of the first day of fighting the DAK, less the 90.LAD was between the Knightsbridge Box and El Adem. The 90.LAD was about 7 KM south of El Adem. The Italian Ariete and Trieste Motorized Divisions had their hands full trying to dent the Fighting French stronghold at Bir Hacheim. The bulk of the British armor had withdrawn, to the vicinity of El Adem and Ed Duda, with other smaller armored units to the south and east of the Knightsbridge area. In all the British position was not bad. They still had numerical superiority in all arms and equipment and the mine fields had not been pierced. The British felt that they had a good chance to destroy the Afrika Korps if they could prevent reinforcements and supplies from reaching it, and could keep their mine field intact.
The fighting on May 28 was very intense and confused. The Knightsbridge Box became the crucial point in the fighting. This well-organized high ground, heroically defended by elements of the 50th British Infantry Division, quickly became the focal point of the Axis attack. Rommel realized that he must destroy this backbone of British resistance before attempting to proceed any farther with his Afrika Korps. The British moved their armor into position to give assistance to the Knightebridge Box. Two armored brigades moved in to attack from the west, while elements of the 7th Armored and 1st Armored attacked from area of El Adem and Ed Duda. The 7th Armoured struck the 90.LAD while it was in the act of reforming to strike the El Adem area and split it up into several fragments which withdrew to join, the remainder of the DAK. Tie Ariete Armored division started moving up from the south to join the Afrika Korps but was struck heavily by a brigade from the 1st Armored Division and was also broken up into disorganized pieces which had to fight their way up to a union with the Afrika Korps. The Italian Trieste Motorized division, less elements to contain the Fighting French at Bir Hacheim, moved up west of the mine field to the vicinity south of Trig Capuzzo. Severe tank battles raged throughout the day around the Knightsbridge position, and by the end of the day the British had lost 150 tanks and the Axis 90.
A dust storm blanketed the area on the 29 but this did not stop the fighting. The British launched a coordinated attack from the east generally along the Trig Capuzzo and succeeded in driving Romnel’s forces back toward the mine field, and compressing them into the area known as the Cauldron. Rommel’s position was rapidly becoming precarious. His supply line around the southern flank had been subjected to continuous attacks by the Royal Air Force. His supplies were running low and he realized that he could quickly lose his Afrika Korps when exhaustion of fuel rendered it immobile. The sandstorm which prevailed throughout the day allowed the Italian Trieste Motorized Division to make his position a bit less critical by opening two small gaps in the mine field at his rear.
Fighting continued in the Cauldron area during May 30 with the British exerting maximum pressure from the east, with their armor, leaving their infantry in their organized positions. By the end of the day it was noticed that Rommel had started a withdrawal of some of his forces back through the mine field. On the following day, the fighting followed about the same pattern as on the preceding day with the British trying unsuccessfully to close the pocket. It is interesting to note that on this day the British Armored Division Commanders engaged in the fighting strongly recommended that all available RAF planes be used to pulverize the Axis in the Cauldron, but this was not done. Instead the bulk of the RAF was used to raid Derna. By June 1, Rommel had widened the gap in the mine field and he had set up a ring of 88-MM guns around the Cauldron which enabled him to successfully continue his withdrawal. The British continued to exert terrific pressure from the east, but on June 2 they observed that Rommel’s withdrawal had slackened and that he was bringing reinforcements eastwards into the Cauldron area. At this stage of the fighting the British position was still good. Although they had lost very heavily in armor during the fighting since May 26, it was known that Rommel had likewise suffered heavy losses. During the period of fighting the British had received considerable replacements in tanks and the 10th Indian Division had arrived from Iraq to strengthen the British forces. It was estimated that Rommel now had 250 tanks against Gen Ritchie’s 330.
A blinding sandstorm raged throughout the battle area on 3 and 4 June and prevented either side from attacking, but both forces made vigorous preparations to resume the attack as soon as the weather permitted. Gen Rommel took advantage of the concealing storm to widen the gap in the mine field, organize his position, and to strengthen his forces in the Cauldron by bringing in the Trieste, Bresioa, and Pavia Infantry Divisions.
On 5 June the sandstorm subsided and Gen Ritchie launched a coordinated attack to clear the Cauldron. The Infantry met with slight success at several points but the 8th Army suffered extremely heavy losses in Armor and artillery. Gen Rommel had strengthened the ring of 88 MM antitank guns around the Cauldron, and these weapons took a terrific toll of British armor. Some of Gen Ritchie’s infantry units were completely overrun. By the end of the day four complete regiments of British artillery had been overrun and destroyed or captured by Gen Rommel’s Army.
After bitter fighting on June 6, 7 and 8, during which the Axis forces gradually pushed the British back, Rommel decided he would make another effort to destroy the Fighting French at Bir Hacheim. He dispatched the 90.LAD to do the job. Although the heroic French withstood repeated attacks by the Germans just as they had withstood the efforts of the Italians, Gen Ritchie, because of his inability to supply the garrison at Bir Hacheim and his wise hesitancy to fall into Rommel’s trap by sending portions of his precious armor to their support, ordered the Fighting French evacuated. This evacuation was carried out on night, June 10. Rommel, his right flank now free, was ready to complete the job to be done around the Knightsbridge area. On the morning of June 12, the opposing forces were in position. It was quickly apparent to Gen Ritchie that it was Rommel’s plan to envelop the British right by sending the 90.LAD and the Trieste Motorized divisions around the El Adem area and that the mission of these two units would be to out off the 1st South African and the 6th Infantry Divisions. In order to allow these two units time to withdraw Gen Ritchie decided to attack from the line along the Trig Capuzzo in order to pin down the Axis forces. Rommel used his 88-MM guns and his tanks masterfully during this engagement. Because of being out ranged by Axis armor, the British tanks had to depend upon rapid movement in order to get within effective range of Rommel’s tanks. Repeatedly the Axis tanks would retire drawing British tanks onto 88-MM guns hidden among wrecked vehicles and in dug in positions. These 88’s took a heavy toll on Gen Ritchie’s tanks. When the British remained in position and refused to attack, Rommel would send forward one or two of his tanks which would weave back and forth just outside effective range of British guns. This would create a heavy screen of dust and by the time the cloud of dust had finally settled 88-MM guns would have been rushed forward and would open their deadly fire on the British.
By June 14, the British had, under great pressure by the Axis forces, begun their gradual withdrawal from the Trig Capuzzo line, and by the 16, only a rearguard force consisting of elements of the 1st Armored division remained in position around Acroma. Meantime the 1st South African Division had withdrawn east of Tobruk. Later, that day, the 60th Infantry Division, finding itself out off, split up into small units and under cover of darkness struck toward the west and broke through the surprised Italians and finally rejoined the remnants of the Eighth Army during their withdrawal along the coast. This unit suffered heavy losses during this operation. Gen Ritchie had not made definite plans to attempt the retention of Tobruk by leaving a garrison there as Gen Wavell had done in the spring of 1941, but there were sufficient supplies in Tobruk to sustain a large garrison for several months. The withdrawal of the Eighth Army from the Gazala Line was made under very difficult, conditions, transportation was scarce, and British higher headquarters was exiting terrific pressure on Gen Ritchie and Gen Auckinleck to duplicate the actions of the heroic Tobruk Garrison of 1941. Finally Gen Ritxhie was ordered to leave the garrison composed of the 2nd South African Division, supplemented by a tank brigade and two separate infantry brigades. This garrison totaled over 25000 men. It was felt that this force would be able to hold out until the British could reinforce the Eighth Army and launch another offensive from the east.
Rommel had learned from his expensive experience of the preceding year. After sending his armor streaking in pursuit of the British for some thirty miles, he left a skeleton force to maintain contact with the Eighth Army rearguard and quickly struck at Tobruk with an overpowering force. He launched the attack on the morning of June 20 with the support of pulverizing bombardment from the air. By mid-afternoon Tobruk had fallen. In addition to the 25000 troops, he captured vast quantities of supplies including gasoline and vehicles.
The Pursuit to El Alamein
Rommel quickly turned to the pursuit of the depleted Eighth Army. A comparison of the strength of the two armies at this point gives a clear picture of the results of the fighting. Rommel now had approximately eight divisions in fairly good fighting condition and the British had about four divisions of disorganized and poorly equipped troops. The Axis had over 100 tanks and were adding to this number at the rate of a dozen per day from their repair shops. The British armor strength was so inferior in numbers and in quality that it could hardly be considered. To complete the picture of Rommel’s victory at this stage of the campaign, it is interesting to note that Gen Ritchie had received between May 26 and June 8 over 400 tanks to replace his losses at the front. The Royal Air Force rendered gallant service to the Eighth Army during its retreat, retarding Rommel’s pursuit and covering the long British bumper to bumper columns. The British decided to retire to Mersa Matruh before making a stand. By June 24 practically all of Gen Ritchie’s depleted forces had reached Mersa Matruh and were hastily getting into defensive positions prepared during preceding campaigns. On June 26, Rommel’s forces made contact with the British covering forces and immediately prepared to attack. At this point, Gen Auckinleck took personal command of the Eighth Army. He decided to leave the 2nd New Zealand Division, which had just joined, to act as a rearguard force, and to withdraw his forces to El Alamein. The New Zealanders, a great fighting division, stopped the Axis assault for two days before retiring, thus enabling the Eighth Army to hastily organize a defensive position at El Alamein. The situation was grave for the British and ripe for the Axis forces, but the bitter and continuous fighting (Gazala line and Tobruk), forced the pursuit under continuing bombardment and strafing by the RAF. The fighting at Mersa Matruh had rendered Rommel’s Army incapable of effective attack. This army was exhausted. He had the necessary troops and equipment, but his men had reached their limit of endurance. Rommel would not let this great opportunity slip by without an attempt and during the early days of July tried several piecemeal attacks on the British position. These attacks were without power and by the end of July both sides had settled down to an intense but short period of bringing up reinforcements and supplies, and in improving their defensive positions.
The Situation at El Alamein
Both sides realized that the period of inactivity would be a short one. Each side wanted to attack as soon as it felt that its forces were strong enough to promise victory. It was another race for supplies. Even though Rommel’s supply lines (factory to front line) were still shorter than those of the British, he realized that the British were now close to their big bases of Cairo and Alexandria and that supplies were reaching the Eighth Army in great quantities. He therefore realized that in order to have the best chance of victory he was going to have to attack before he was fully prepared. Also, the RAF was growing rapidly and from its nearby bases was concentrating on his supply lines with very effective results. On August 13, Gen Bernard L Montgomery became the new commander of the Eighth Army. By the middle of August Montgomery’s forces were in fair condition. The Eighth Army had been very rapidly re-equipped and reinforced. The 44th British and 9th Australian divisions had arrived. Most important, replacements of tanks and antitank guns had been received. In the next battle the British were going to be able to fight the Axis with greatly improved weapons. They had received a large shipment of US Grant and the more improved US M-4 Sherman Tanks. Their replacements of antitank guns consisted primarily of the British six pounder. Montgomery felt that he either had the choice of attacking before he was fully ready and with the force he felt was necessary to completely destroy Rommel’s Army or to build up a strong defensive position and allow his opponent to attack. He felt that his Army was now strong enough to stop any attack it might receive. The terrain they were defending was the choice defensive terrain from Alexandria to Tripoli. It had the necessary southern anchor which necessitated the enemy force making a penetration. He decided to allow Rommel to do the attacking.
Montgomery had at his disposal the equivalent of two armored divisions and six infantry divisions. They were the :
– 9th Australian Division
– 1st South African Division
– 5th Indian Division
– 2nd New Zealand Division
– 50th Infantry Division
– 44th Infantry Division
– 7th Armoured Division
– 10th Armoured Division
His plan of defense of the El Alamein line was to occupy with troops the strongly organized infantry defenses from El Alamein to Ruweisat Ridge. He placed his prized 2nd New Zealand Division on the dominating approaches to Ruweisat Ridge. The southern sector of the line was protected by two parallel mine fields which were patrolled by motorized infantry and light armor. The bulk of the British armor was held in rear of this sector. Montgomery considered the high ground of Alem El Helfa to be the key terrain of the entire defense line. He reasoned that Rommel would make his main effort with his armor between Ruweisat Ridge and Quaret El Himeimat and if he succeeded in making a penetration that this high ground would be the controlling terrain for the backbone of the British positions along Ruweisat Ridge. He therefore placed his 22nd Armoured Regiment, which was the battle tested backbone of his armored strength, in excellent hull-down positions on the important southwestern slope of Alem El Helfa, and planed the 44th Infantry Division in organized position on the ridge. Rommel had also received reinforcements since he last attacked. He had received the German 164.Infanteriedivision and the Italian Littorio Armoured Division. His plan of attack was to make the major effort on the Southern sector and, after passing through the mine fields with his armor, to destroy the British Armor when it came out to meet his thrust to the east.
Rommel’s Attack at El Alamein – Aug 30 – Sept 6 1942
Rommel launched his attack on the night of August 30/31. The attack took the form of three simultaneous thrusts; one against the northern sector, one in the central sector and the major effort in the south. The northern thrust was easily repulsed. The effort in the center made some gain but was driven back by a counterattack. The major thrust in the south was made by the DAK and the Italian Armored Corps. By 1000, on the 31, the German 15.Panzerdivision and the 21.Panzerdivision had penetrated the mine field near Quaret El Himeimat and by mid-afternoon, the German 90.LAD had breached the mine field near Ruweisat Ridge. The Trieste Motorized Division was the only Italian division that ever penetrated the mine, field. During the afternoon of August 31, mobile elements of the British 7th Armoured Division had been hit by elements of the German 15.Panzerdivision and had withdrawn to the east according to plan. The German 21.Panzerdivision had turned toward the northeast after passing through the mine field and had run into the British 22nd Armoured Brigade located in their prepared position on the southeastern slope of Alem El Helfa. This German unit suffered heavy losses and withdrew after dark. During the night Rommel’s spearheads were hit hard by the RAF.
On Sep 1, the 15. and 21. Panzerdivisions attacked the Alem El Helfa position, and as soon as Montgomery decided that this was the main armored thrust he moved elements of the 10th Armoured Division from the east and the 23rd Armoured Regiment from the north alongside the 22nd Armoured Division. British armor had learned their lesson at the Gazala line. This time they fought from their well prepared positions under the protection of their artillery and antitank guns. The Germans suffered heavy losses in armor, and during the next two days Rommel seemed undecided as to where to attack with his tanks. The refusal of the British armor to leave their positions was an action he had not contemplated, and the longer range of the new British tanks and antitank guns presented a different problem than the one he had solved so effectively at the Gazala line. The mobile British armored units on the south continued to deliver harassing attacks from that direction and the RAF was hitting him continuously. On Sep 3, the British launched an attack to the south with the 2nd New Zealand Division that was successful advancing a short distance but was not successful in closing the gap in the mine field. This attack by the British seemed to be the final factor that convinced Rommel that his offensive had failed. On Sep 4, he began his withdrawal to the west. The British continued to press some attacks with the 2nd New Zealand Division and mobile armored units from the south, but the bulk of the British armor remained in position along the Alem El Helfa Ridge. The Axis bitterly contested each yard of their foothold east of the mine field. On Sep 6, they still retained a small nose in the mine field and Montgomery decided to allow them to keep it as it had no material effect on his own position. After having allowed Rommel to expend his precious supplies and equipment, Montgomery was now ready to make his final preparation for the offensive that was to end in the destruction of the Axis forces in North Africa.
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