The Desert War – October 1942

December 25 1942, Mena
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

This month 44% of military cargo and fuel sent to Libya was sunk, this was better than the 33% sunk last month and Churchill later claimed that petrol was especially targeted and 66% of that was sunk. The Ultra intercepts were providing outstanding intelligence enabling all this.

Deception played a major role in this battle and the following is a simplified description of how it worked. Both sides practised this dark art but by now the Allies had the upper hand and had more equipment to play a role in the deception. The front line ran from El Alamein on the coast to the Qattara Depression about 40 miles to the south.

The plan was to have a massive attack in the north while keeping Rommel guessing where it would start. Rommel had to split his tanks in two, one part in the north and the other part in the south. The Allies knew exactly how much fuel Rommel had, it was enough for him to move his tanks to the south or the north but only once. The ships bringing fuel to Libya were targeted and very little got through.

The Allies then needed to make Rommel think they had also split their forces in two while concentrating them in the north. The did this by using a variation of the pea under the shell trick. Tanks were held at the back while dummy lorries were placed near the front. Supplies were built up near the front in disused trenches but disguised. Artillery was also hidden away.

Two days before the battle the tanks in the north were moved overnight to the front to be hidden under the dummy lorry shields. Dummy tanks replaced the real ones at the rear. For German and Italian air reconnaissance everything looked much the same as it had done. The same trick was done with the artillery and its tractor units. The fictitious Sherman tanks in the south were rumoured to be suffering problems, the ones in the north had apparently not been moved. The Axis thought they still had at least 2 days notice of an attack.

Once the real attack in the north started, Rommel still had to leave tanks in the south because he was expecting a second attack there. This attack never came because the Axis forces were in full retreat by then. All of these plans were accompanied by dummy radio traffic to create the impression that there were major forces in the south whereas there were not many at all.

On the 1st Hans-Joachim Marseille was buried at the Heroes Cemetery in Derna, Libya. Albert Kesselring and Eduard Neumann each delivered a eulogy.

On the 6th in Egypt, Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery issued his final plan for 8th Army’s offensive. Instead of first going all out to destroy the enemy armour, he would eat away at the enemy’s holding troops, who were for the most part unarmoured, and use his own advantage in tanks to prevent the enemy mobile units from interfering. Without their infantry divisions to hold the line, providing firm bases for the mobile forces, the enemy’s armour would be at a grave disadvantage and their supply routes would be constantly threatened. The main attack would be made by Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese’s 30th Corps in the north on a front of four divisions. Brian Horrocks’ 13th Corps in the south would stage diversionary attacks to mislead the enemy, while Herbert Lumsden’s tank-heavy 10th Corps was held back to prevent 30th Corps from being interfered with. Artillery and air plans were to be carefully prepared with the battle set to commence on 23 Oct 1942.

On the 7th the USAAF 57th Fighter Group, flying P-40 fighters and located at Landing Ground 174 airfield east of El Alamein in Egypt, gained full operational status

On the 9th Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano noted in his diary that Italian intelligence had learned that the Allies were planning on invading North Africa, and it concerned him because a successful Allied campaign there would put Italy in danger. USAAF 57th Fighter Group achieved its first aerial victory when six P-40F fighters of the 64th Fighter Squadron, escorting 18 Boston bombers en route to El Daba, Egypt, was attacked by German Bf 109 fighters, and one of the German fighters was shot down by 1st Lieutenant William J. Mount

On the 15th Alfred Jodl suggested to Adolf Hitler to order Vichy France to strengthen its defences in North Africa as intelligence indicated a possible Allied attack; Hitler rejected the suggestion as he thought the Italians would object to any moves that strengthened France. The genius of the Führer shines through once more.

On the 21st US Major General Mark Clark, aboard British submarine HMS Seraph (which was under disguise as an American submarine), began negotiations with Vichy French commanders in North Africa in preparation for Operation Torch. On this day the Luftwaffe threw in the towel and stopped attacking Malta, their losses were just too high.

On the 23rd Operation Lightfoot was launched by the British in Egypt, attempting to penetrate the extensive Axis minefield with a major offensive. Over 900 artillery pieces shelled German positions in a general bombardment followed by more precise targeting. During five and a half hours 530,000 shells were fired. The plan was to break through the minefields that night so the tanks could get at the German armour, troops could walk on anti-tank mines without setting them off (rather them than me poor devils) but it all got bogged down and by the morning of the 24th the tanks were still stuck in the minefields. Allied convoy UCF 1, containing troops and equipment for the invasion of French North Africa, departed Chesapeake Bay, United States. RAF bombers attacked Genoa and Turin, Italy

On the 24th in Egypt outside of El Alamein, British aircraft dropped 122 tons of bombs on Axis airfields and tank concentrations as Allied troops continued to engage in heavy combat

General Georg Stumme, temporarily in command of Panzer Army Afrika in Erwin Rommel’s absence, died from a heart attack while under attack after falling from his car while conducting a reconnaissance of British positions at El Alamein, Egypt. His body would not be found until the next day. General Wilhelm von Thoma, commanding the Afrika Korps, took over pending Rommel’s return. Clearing the southern minefield was taking longer than expected.

On the 25th British XXX Corps moved north, with Australian 26th Brigade at the spearhead, attacked Point 29 southwest of Tel el Eisa, Egypt. This was meant to draw Axis reserves to the area. Erwin Rommel visited Rome to press for more supplies for the war in North Africa. He arrived in Egypt to assume command of all Axis units in North Africa by the evening. By this day Rommel was down to 3 days supply of fuel only 2 of which were east of Tobruk

On the morning of the 26th Rommel committed many of his reserves to the Point 29 region in Egypt. Meanwhile, noting that Rommel had taken the bait, Montgomery planned to pin down Axis troops around Point 29 while launching a new offensive to the southwest. Allied convoy UCF 1, containing troops and equipment for the invasion of French North Africa, was met by a covering force of battleships and cruisers which had sailed from Casco Bay, Maine, United States

On the 27th heavy fighting was observed at Woodcock and Snipe positions in Egypt. As a general thought, Rommel hoped Stalingrad would soon be over and the Germans could then move south towards Iran meaning the Allies couldn’t concentrate only on Egypt and would have to move forces to defend Iraq and Iran. Luckily Stalingrad held out and the prediction of Paulus would be proven false. He ended up surrendering to the Russians defying Hitler’s insane orders.

On the 28th Allied convoy UCF 1, containing troops and equipment for the invasion of French North Africa, was met by carriers Ranger, Sangamon, Suwannee, Chenango, and Santee which had sailed from Bermuda. Task Force 34 now contained the full invasion force of 102 ships, carrying 35,000 American troops commanded by Major General Patton; the force sailed for Casablanca.

On the 29th HMS Furious launched another 32 Spitfires bound for Malta. They would be used for offensive operations rather than defence now that the Axis had given up attacking Malta.

On the 30th Axis forces at El Alamein, Egypt were now down to about 320 operational tanks with little fuel, while the Allies had about 1200 tanks. After sun down, Montgomery launched a diversionary attack at the Point 29 region to pin down Axis forces before he was ready to launch his main offensive elsewhere. This day my dad was moved from Croydon airfield to North Africa as part of Operation Torch in 333 RAF Group, I guess on board a ship since the landings would not happen for a few days yet. At sea, U-559 was spotted north of the Nile Delta by a Sunderland. 4 destroyers and another plane attacked her and spent 16 hours depth charging her. Finally she surfaced and was captured. 3 sailors went aboard and removed enigma key settings along with all current key settings. Only one of the 3 men survived but the keys were secure and eventually went to Bletchley Park. The survivor was only 16, having lied about his age, but the poor devil died in a house fire in South Shields two years later trying to rescue his younger sister. And we moan about our lot in life.

On the 31st the German 21st Panzer Division launched four successive strikes against Australian troops at Point 29 in Egypt, causing heavy casualties on both sides. Having earlier silenced a machine gun post and taken 12 prisoners, Sergeant William Kibby was leading an Australian advance near Alamein, Egypt taking enemy positions with grenades when he was cut down by machine gun fire. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

And in other news – on the 1st The British Royal Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers was established, on the 2nd the troopship RMS Queen Mary collided with (and sank [sliced in two]) one of her escorts, the first world war vintage light cruiser HMS Curacoa was sunk off the Irish coast with the loss of 337 lives, on the 7th Franklin Roosevelt announced his intentions to try the ringleaders responsible for the organized murder, referring to the Holocaust, as war criminals, on the 8th a Nazi radio announcement stated that from mid-day (German time) officers and men captured at Dieppe, France had been manacled as a retaliation for the alleged tying of prisoners during a small-scale raid on Sark on 3 October 1942. The British War Office replied that German prisoners brought back from Dieppe had not had their hands tied and had been treaty humanely. It was further threatened that unless the Germans immediately unshackle their captives, then German prisoners of war in Canada would be put into chains from noon 10 October 1942, on the 9th Alois Brunner declared Vienna, Austria Judenfrei, Free of Jews, on the 12th the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Policy) distributed a memorandum formally announcing the British Cabinet’s decision to conduct unrestricted air warfare against Germany, Italy and Japan, on the 19th Joseph Stilwell convinced Archibald Wavell to commit to an offensive in Burma in cooperation with the Sino-American forces, on the 22nd the conscription age in Britain was lowered to age 18 by Royal Proclamation, on the 24th Norwegian police were ordered to arrest Jews over the age of 15 and seize their property; the arrests were to be carried out beginning 26 Oct 1942, on the 25th Friedrich Paulus reported to Adolf Hitler that Stalingrad, Russia would be taken by 10 Nov 1942, on the 26th  850 Jews were arrested in Norway. Meanwhile, in Nürnberg, Germany, 95 scientists gathered to review the results of Dr. Sigmund Rascher’s freezing experiments using concentration camp prisoners as subjects, on the 27th a second conference on the sterilization of undesirable peoples took place in Germany (it would not be surprising if this was being discussed today for the unvaxxed), on the 28th the construction of the Alaska-Canadian Highway was completed; it would not be dedicated until 20 Nov 1942, on the 29th Britain advised Italy that Italy would continue to be bombed by the RAF until they stepped out of the war, on the 30th came Operation Title, a British attempt to attack the German battleship Tirpitz with manned torpedoes. The mission was aborted.

We all know the outcome of the second Battle of El Alamein but it was hard fought and cost many good men their lives. There would be no looking back now. The Axis were on the retreat in North Africa and would be chased out completely. There would be some ups and downs but there was no chance that the Axis could win. It must have been a great relief to the Allies to finally have some good news. There were still a few days of this battle left to run but they will be explored next month. Malta was still suffering badly from lack of supplies but it would soon be possible to defend the convoys all the way from Alexandria using the desert airfields at Maturba. Next month also sees Operation Torch when Morocco and Algeria are invaded by the Allies. A bit of a curate’s egg that Operation, however it was successful in the end.

Churchill’s comments about El Alamein much later were that before this battle it seemed we could never win, after it we never lost. One hesitates to contradict the great man but he was a politician and after El Alamein it was not all plain sailing especially when it came to his “soft underbelly of Europe” theory.

© well_chuffed 2022