The Desert War – July 1942

well_chuffed, Going Postal
El Alamein, October 1942
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2020

The month of July 80 years ago sees what became known as the 1st Battle of El Alamein, the 2nd would become the more famous one. In the first one the German advance was halted at El Alamein ensuring the Axis didn’t occupy Cairo and Mussolini’s white horse would not feature in a victory parade, the fool had even planned who would be Governor of Egypt. The action at sea and in the air remained as hot as ever. There was utter panic in Alexandria as the Axis advanced. The period became known as “the Flap” and the worst Wednesday was known as “Ash Wednesday” because of the amount of paper being burnt; there were many pieces headed “Top Secret” floating around in the air. El Alamein, basically a railway halt, was chosen as a location because of the Qattara Depression 40 miles to the south, it meant there was only a maximum 40 mile front. Halfway along those 40 miles was the Ruweisat Ridge.

By July the RAF on Malta was strong enough to attack Axis aircraft before they reached the island. The German solution was to bomb the airfields. Their attacks were not as heavy as they had been in April because they had fewer aircraft now due to losses and some planes had returned to the eastern front. During the first 10 days of July more than 100 Luftwaffe planes were shot down while around 25 RAF pilots were lost. It was during July that George “Screwball” Beurling arrived. He turned out to be one of the very best pilots and had nailed deflection shooting to a T. This is where you aim in front of the target so that the bullets arrive to meet the aircraft. He could bring down a plane with just one short burst. His tally for July was 18.

The Luftwaffe Ju-88 bombers used to dive bomb their targets but their losses were so high they reverted to high level bombing but it was not long before the RAF were just as successful at attacking the higher flying formations. By the end of July 150 Axis aircraft had been destroyed, 100 by fighters and 50 by anti-aircraft fire and the German bombing campaign was fizzling out.

On the 1st the German 90th Light Division advanced towards El Alamein at 3am while Axis tanks covered the southern portion of their line. On this first day of the battle against British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and South African troops the Axis took heavy casualties but the Allies strayed too far north. On the 2nd, was there ever a more previous leader, Il Duce sent a message to Adolf recommending Rommel as military governor of Egypt and a yet to be decided Italian as his deputy. Rommel abandoned the south of his attack and moved those tanks to the main assault on El Alamein, the southern flank had by this time lost 2,000 men and 30 field guns. On the 3rd the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions plus the Italian XX Motorised Corps attacked Ruweisat Ridge near El Alamein with little success, at the end of the day they only had 26 working tanks. The RAF flew 780 sorties on this day to attack the Axis offensive. On the 4th the Axis continued their assault of Ruweisat Ridge again making little progress while the RAF flew 900 sorties against them. The Allies later started a small offensive using South African and New Zealand troops against the stalled Axis offensive. On the 5th it went quiet, the Axis were, yet again, short on supplies, the Italian Ariete Division was down to 5 tanks. The reason supplies were a problem was the original Axis plan was to take Tobruk and then wait six weeks to build up strength. Instead Rommel saw the momentum and chose to go further. He had already done this several times before but he never seemed to learn and this was the major reason he was never promoted to even higher rank, his antics were noticed back in Berlin.

On the 8th General Auchinleck began an attack on Tel el Makh Khad and Tel el Eisa. An Axis convoy left Suda Bay in the north of Crete with 5 freighters, an Italian destroyer, a German destroyer, 2 Italian torpedo boats and 2 German submarine chasers. Valletta’s Harbour was again subject to an air attack. On the 10th the Australian 26th Brigade captured Tel el Eisa ridge and the South Africans captured Tel el Makh Kahd. The 15th Panzer Division attacked the Aussies but got nowhere while the New Zealanders hit the German 621 Radio Interception Company and this left Rommel without means of acquiring intelligence on 8th Army movements. On the 11th the Australian 26th Infantry Brigade attacked Point 24 near El Alamein and took possession of it, they then defended successfully as the Germans tried to recapture it. Then a column of Allied tanks and motorised infantry attacked Deir el Abyad taking around 1,000 Italians prisoner.

On the 12th the German 104th Infantry Regiment attacked Tel el Eisa ridge but were beaten off suffering 600 casualties. On the 13th the 21st Panzer Division attacked Tel el Eisa ridge and Point 24 successfully removing the Allied defenders. In Gibraltar 12 Italian frogmen swam 3 miles from Algeciras in Spain to place limpet mines on British ships. 3 merchant ships were sunk and one was damaged. On the 14th HMS Eagle with 32 Spitfires on board left Gibraltar for Malta, she was escorted by 2 cruisers and 5 destroyers. The first battle of Ruweisat Ridge began at 11pm when the Indian 5th Brigade plus the New Zealand 4th and 5th Brigades captured two Italian divisions but they had missed a group of German tanks and a few infantry positions.

On the 15th HMS Eagle launched 32 Spitfires headed for Malta, all bar one got through. USAAF B-24s bombed Benghazi Harbour. The New Zealand 5th and 6th Brigades took the western end of Ruweisat Ridge but then German tanks attacked them with predictable results. 730 were taken prisoner. At the other end of the Ridge the Indian 5th Brigade and British tanks took the real estate. On the 16th the Australian 24th Battalion attacked Point 24 but failed to take it while suffering 50% casualties but at the eastern end of Ruweisat Ridge Panzers attacked the Indian 5th Infantry Brigade and the 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades but the Allies held firm. On the 17th the USAAF sent B-24s to bomb Benghazi and B-17s to bomb Tobruk. The Australian 24th Brigade and the 44th Royal Tank Regiment attacked the Italian Trento and Trieste Divisions at Mitelrya Ridge between Tel el Eisa and Ruweisat. The were successful but would be pushed out by Panzers and the Trento Division. By the 18th the British had 173 tanks and more in reserve, Rommel had 38 German and 51 Italian tanks

On the 19th the USAAF again bombarded Benghazi and Tobruk while cruisers HMS Dido and Euryalus with 4 destroyers bombarded Mersa Matruh. On the 20th HMS Eagle left Gibraltar for Malta carrying 31 Spitfires and 4 Swordfish. On the 21st HMS Eagle launched her aircraft, only one Spitfire was lost and that was down to a leaking fuel tank. Malta based aircraft attacked an Italian merchant ship and her escort but did no damage. The New Zealand 6th Brigade attacked south of Ruweisat Ridge dislodging the defenders at several places but no British tanks turned up to help them hold the positions. On the 22nd Panzers attacked the New Zealanders resulting in heavy losses. The USAAF was active again with B-17s bombing Tobruk and B-24s bombing Suda Bay in Crete. The 23rd Armoured Brigade arrived at Ruweisat Ridge and got stuck in a minefield at which point it was almost wiped out, the 23rd Armoured Brigade finished the day with 40 tanks destroyed and 47 badly damaged. On the 23rd Indian troops attacked Deir el Shein with no success. Italian freighter Rosolino Pilo arrived at Benghazi having left Brindisi three days before. On the 25th USAAF B-17s again attacked Tobruk.

On the 26th Operation Manhood began, this was an attempt by the 8th Army to beat the Axis offensive starting with an initial strike at Miteirya Ridge. On the 27th after some success, British tanks again failed to appear and the Axis counter attack caused many casualties. This was effectively the end of the 1st Battle of El Alamein, there had been 13,250 casualties on the Allied side and 17,000 on the Axis side. Italian submarine Scirè left Italy for Operation SL 1 which was to target British ships in Haifa. The Axis plan to invade Malta, Operation C3 for the Italians and Operation Herkules for the Germans was cancelled and Malta was the key. By the 31st it was stalemate, Rommel blamed it on not enough supplies and the poor morale of the Italians. This was another thread to Rommel’s North African stint, continually blaming the Italians who had their ups and downs just like all the other forces. Rommel’s skill at tactics was recognised by all but both the Italian and German High Commands realised he seldom saw the big picture.

Dudley Clarke’s deception plans, this time called Sentinel, played a part in halting the German advance. The plan persuaded the Germans that they faced at least two motorised Divisions and a light armoured Brigade. Rommel could not risk an attack with his dwindling supplies. As has already been mentioned, Rommel made a habit of rushing into things, out stripping his supplies and as soon as he was stopped, his attack was all over.

When the 621 Radio Intercept Company was captured, its commander Captain Seebohm was found to have the British Call-sign book currently in use in the Middle East. In addition, he had the British Map Reference Code for the attacks that would culminate in the attack on El Alamein. with identifications of the units using row numbers and references. Bit of a leak there somewhere. Two of the signallers had copies of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca even though they spoke not a word of english. They were receiving intelligence from a houseboat on the River Nile which was encoded using that book. The spies on the houseboat were being run by an Egyptian officer named Anwar El Sadat. A man destined to become President of Egypt once Nasser stood down.

In other news …. on the 21st General Montgomery told General Paget that the Dieppe raid, known as Operation Rutter, was scheduled for the 4th July, On the 2nd a German seaplane scouted Arctic convoy PQ-17 all day. Seven He-115 planes attempted to attack with torpedos but they all missed, the Tirpitz, cruiser Admiral Hipper, four destroyers and two torpedo boats left Trondheim meet PQ-17, on the 4th the Dieppe raid was postponed due to bad weather, on the 8th the 8 German saboteurs captured in the US went on trial before a special military court, on the 9th Ju-88s attacked PQ-17 damaging four freighters while the same number of aircraft were shot down, on the 11th the Japanese gave up their plans to invade New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa, on the 12th PQ-17 arrived in northern Russia having lost 24 of the initial 33 vessels, the losses included 430 tanks, 210 aircraft, 3,350 vehicles and 100,000 tons of other supplies, Stalin didn’t believe it and thought he was being short changed by the west, ‘kin paranoid ingrate, on the 13th Field Marshal Feodor von Bock was dismissed as CO of Army Group South by Wilhelm Keitel (a notorious creep and Hitler’s yes man) for moving two Panzer Divisions without the Führer’s authority (that’ll teach ’em to cross the madman), on the 14th after a Gestapo chief in Yugoslavia SS Major Helm was assassinated the Germans killed 700 people in reprisal in Zagreb, FDR ordered his Joint Chiefs of Staff to stop new major operations in the Pacific and to turn their minds to the invasion of North Africa, on the 17th Churchill warned Stalin that after the disaster of PQ-17 no further convoy missions were planned, on the 18th the prototype Me 262 made its first flight, on the 24th Oppenheimer (quite probably a Soviet spy, everyone else involved seemed to be) was chosen to be the boss of the atomic bomb project and on the 28th Stalin issued his Order #227 known as “not a step back” where unit commanders were to form special sections to enforce this rule, in parallel penal battalions were created for miscreants and their officers soon had the authority to shoot people for any reason they saw fit, communism at work.

Half the Italian frogmen had been smuggled to Algeciras via Bordeaux, the other half via Barcelona. The twelve met in Madrid where they were driven to Cadiz supposedly as replacement crew for an Italian tanker. From there they made their way to Algeciras to carry out their mission.

And so ended July, everything at a standstill in the desert again. It would be November before it kicked off again with Montgomery’s victory at the 2nd battle of El Alamein.


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