Updated: May 18
About the Series
This article is part of a series: Maps of the Desert War. In this series I explore battles and operations that took place during the WW2 North African Campaign (or more precisely – its Western Desert part).
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The Battle of Alam el Halfa was the last big Axis offensive in the Western Desert Campaign. German code name for the operation was Unternehmen Brandung (Operation Surf), and it took place between 30 August and 5 September 1942, at the El Alamein line.
The British defensive El Alamein line was very narrow – barely 40 miles from the El Alamein railroad station in the north to the vast deserted area of Qattara Depression in the south. General Auchinleck chose this ground well, as this bottleneck ground restricted Rommel in using his favourite manoeuver – hook around the desert flank. British have also planted false maps of the terrain to the Germans showing the southern sector as good ground for mobile troops, being lightly held and scarcely mined. They wanted to lure the Panzerarmee into choosing this route of advance, and hitting upon the formidable defences on the Alam el Halfa Ridge.
Although lacking supplies, Rommel was planning another offensive. He knew he would have to attack before the arrival of the British reinforcements, and before their minefield became too dense for a breakthrough. He requested from his superiors to send him an additional 6,000 tons of fuel and two issues of ammunition before launching the attack. Chief of the Italian Comando Supremo, Marshal Ugo Cavallero promised to deliver requested supplies by sea, while German Field Marshal Kesselring gave guarantees that in the case of emergency the air force would supply the Panzerarmee with an additional 500 tons of fuel daily. Assured by these agreements, Rommel gave a green light for the offensive.
The plan of the Panzerarmee Afrika was to employ the right hook one more time in an attempt to bypass the Allied minefields and get into the open ground, and then to exploit the breakthrough and cut the Allied supply lines. The attack would start at night, so that by daylight the forces advance well beyond the minefield. The spearhead of the attack would be the trusted Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK), consisting of: 15th Panzer Division, 21st Panzer Divisions, and 90th Light Division. On their left flank, the Italian XX Motorised Corps would advance with its armoured divisions Ariete and Littorio, and motorised division Trieste. In the north, the Italian infantry divisions with the support of the German 164th Light Division and Ramcke Parachute Brigade would conduct demonstration attacks, attempting to deceive the Allies.
The British were well aware of this plan, since they have been eavesdropping on the Germans for months with their Ultra signal intercepts. The British command has passed from Auchinleck to Montgomery several weeks before, but the layout of the Allied defences and their general plan remained the same.
The northern sector was defended by XXX Corps, and was composed of: 9th Australian Division (defending the area around Tel el Eisa), 1st South African Infantry Division (defending the area around El Alamein) and 5th Indian Infantry Division (defending the Ruweisat Ridge). The 23rd Armoured Brigade was held in reserve.
The XIII Corps was responsible for the defence of the south sector, and it had to withstand the worst of the Axis attack. South of the Ruweisat Ridge and aligned with the Alam Nayil Ridge, the 2nd New Zealand Division was deployed, representing the pivotal point of the defence line. South of them, in a lightly held sector were 7th Motor Brigade Group and 4th Light Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division – they were tasked to cover the area and then fall back at the appropriate moment. Behind them was the main defensive line at the Alam el Halfa Ridge. This was the position of the 131st and 133rd Infantry Brigade of the 44th Home Counties Division, supported by the 22nd Armoured Brigade and a concentration of anti-tank guns and artillery. Additionally, 8th Armoured Brigade from the 10th Armoured Division was placed towards the Nile Delta, blocking the enemy’s line of advance.
Day 1 (night of 30 August)
Afrikakorps initiated its attack after the sunset, on the night of 30 August – night of the full moon. To their left was the Italian XX Motorised Corps, with the task of securing the flank and reinforcing the spearhead. Rommel hoped to repeat the success at the start of Unternehmen Venezia (Battle of Gazala) three months ago, when his armoured units smashed into the slow-to-start Allied mobile units just east of Bir Hacheim. He set an ambitious goal, to penetrate the minefield and drive 50 kilometres east during the night.
Just before midnight the Germans ran into the forward elements of the 7th Motor Brigade. Soon after, the Royal Air Force (RAF) started a series of attacks on them, dropping around 38 tons of heavy explosive and incendiary bombs. Heavy bombers pounded the tanks and vehicles in the open, killing General von Bismarck (commander of 21st Panzer Division), and wounding General Nehring (commander of DAK). By the time the sun was up, Panzerarmee has advanced only 15 kilometres from its starting position, and the element of surprise was lost.
Day 2 (31 August)
7th Support and 4th Light Armoured Brigades executed a fighting withdrawal, after causing a great deal of delay and disruption to DAK. RAF was poised and ready to inflict even more damage to the enemy columns, but a growing sandstorm soon halted all of their air operations.
General Bayerlein took over the command of DAK (since Gen. Nehring was wounded) and discussed with Rommel should the offensive be cancelled. They were low on fuel, they had not achieved the initial surprise and the operation was in danger of becoming an attritional fight. They decided to press on, but to turn northeast immediately – with the aim to capture Point 102 on the Alam el Halfa Ridge. The spearhead had to refuel before that, having spent their allotment during their overnight race. At around 13:00, the Afrikakorps continued the attack, accompanied by a heavy sandstorm which reduced visibility to less than 100 metres.
The key point on Alam el Halfa – Point 102 was defended by the 22nd Armoured Brigade, comprising of 92 Grants and 74 light tanks. 21st Panzer headed straight for Point 102, with 120 panzers advancing in three waves towards the ridge. British tanks and anti-tank guns on the ridge were given instructions to hold fire until the panzers were within 1,000 yards. Heavy concentration of artillery fire was brought down in the middle of the advancing panzers and the German attack came to a halt. By the end of the day, 21st Panzer claimed 12 British tanks and 6 anti-tank guns destroyed, while 22nd Armoured Brigade estimated German losses at 30 panzers.
Further north, the Italian Bologna Division together with the German 433rd Panzergrenadier Regiment (of the 164th Light Division) successfully captured Point 211 on the Ruweisat Ridge, but was driven off by the Allied counterattack later in the day.
During the evening, Bayerlein suggested to Rommel that both panzer divisions should withdraw from contact, drive east and swing around to take Point 102 from the flank. But there were only 0.25 units of fuel for the panzers and 0.4 units for the wheeled vehicles, which made any outflanking move impossible. Furthermore, as the weather cleared up towards evening – RAF operations continued and German units and supply columns became increasingly harassed by the enemy air force.
By the evening the situation was as follows: DAK has reached the Alam el Halfa Ridge and was stopped, Italian XX Motorised Corps had difficulty to clear the minefield and was falling behind on the left flank, 90th Light Division reached its assigned position and Reconnaissance Group was screening towards east (where elements of 7th Armoured Division kept their screen).
Day 3 (1 September)
During the night, the 2/15th Australian Infantry Battalion mounted a raid codenamed Operation Bulimba in the northern sector. Their objective was to seize Point 23, a small rise in the desert 2.5 miles southwest of Tel el Eisa. The attack began at 5:35, when the Australians successfully crossed the German minefield and captured several enemy posts. By 8:35 the objective (Point 23) was captured, but the penetration was not deep enough to withstand prolonged fight. German 164th Light Division recovered from the initial shock and sent its reserves into counterattack. After losing more than a third of his forces, the Australian commander finally decided to call off the attack and withdraw back to their own lines.
The Axis had great difficulty getting their supply columns through the minefield, due to the constant enemy air strikes. The shipment of fuel, promised by Cavallero and Kesselring was probably the biggest issue at this moment. By the night of 1 September, the Panzerarmee had only enough fuel to keep the supply columns going. Kesselring made good his promise to fly in emergency fuel, but of 400 cubic metres of fuel flown to Benghazi, Derna and Tobruk – more than 75 per cent was “swallowed up by the transport”.
Rommel decided to stop any large-scale manoeuvres, in order to conserve fuel. 21st Panzer Division was halted and given orders to strengthen its defence. 15th Panzer Division was ordered to renew the attack on Alam el Halfa, but all of its attacks were held by the timely intervention of 8th Armoured Brigade. For a second day, the Afrikakorps made no progress against the Allied defences on the ridge. Brigadier Weir, commander of the New Zealand artillery, had gathered an impressive array of field and medium artillery regiments. With seven field regiments and two medium regiments, he began to hammer the German and Italian troops to the south.
That night, the Panzerarmee’s daily report stated that its troops had gone over to the defensive “because the POL (Petroleum, Oil, Lubricants) promised for 1 September has not arrived”.
Day 4 (2 September)
Throughout the morning, the Axis forces were waiting for the Allied counterattack, but none came. Meanwhile, the Panzerarmee received bad news – the fuel carrying ships: Sanandrea, Abruzzi and Picco Fascio were sunk the day before, and thousands of tons of fuel were lost. There was no hope of receiving sufficient fuel to continue the attack and Rommel decided to begin a withdrawal.
At 10:00 hours, he issued the order to the Afrikakorps – to break off the offensive, and to withdraw westwards in stages. These orders came as a shock for most of the officers and men, who were expecting to go back onto the attack after a temporary pause. Rommel also decided to incorporate the British minefields into his own defensive system, and retain control of Qaret (mount) el Himeimat, which offered superb observation over a wide area.
The night bombing of the Panzerarmee reached a climax that night as the RAF redoubled its efforts by dropping 112 tons of bombs.
Days 5-7 (3-5 September)
On 3 September, the withdrawal of the striking elements of the Panzerarmee took place without any serious intervention by the 8th Army. Although the withdrawal required some desperate measures – the fuel tanks of all the transport vehicles west of the minefield were drained, and the fuel given to the withdrawing units.
By mid-afternoon that day, Montgomery had received aerial reconnaissance reports noting that three large enemy columns were moving west through the minefield. That night at 22:30, Operation Beresford (British counterattack) went ahead. 2nd New Zealand Division launched the attack from its pivotal position on Alam Nayil Ridge towards the south.
The blow fell on the positions of the Italian Brescia Division, reinforced by elements of Folgore Paratroopers Division and 155th Panzergrenadier Regiment (of 90th Light Division). The attack brought a mixed result – while the 5th New Zealand Brigade inflicted heavy losses on the Italians, the 132nd Brigade failed in their attack, and sustained heavy losses by the 90th Light Division. This prompted the British commanders Montgomery and Horrocks to call of the operation on the night of 4 September.
Further attacks were attempted by the Allies in the centre – at the position of Ruweisat Ridge, but were unsuccessful. Montgomery decided to refrain from any further attacks, and DAK retired through the minefield, returning to their starting positions.
Rommel had not broken the 8th Army, or reached the Delta. The cost had been comparatively light, because the Panzerarmee lacked the fuel to make its offensive truly powerful, while Montgomery was unwilling to risk his forces before being able to reorganize and reinforce them.
The amount of Axis transport vehicles lost was very significant, and it came because of the constant harassment by the RAF and the Allied patrol units. These losses will cost the Germans and Italians dearly in the months ahead, because they will further degrade their supply situation.
8th Army may not have exploited its advantages when the Panzerarmee became stranded in the desert, but Rommel was defeated and he reverted to defence. The next offensive will be the Allied one, and it will drive the Panzerarmee out of Egypt and Libya once and for all.
The final casualties were as follows:
Axis (Panzerarmee Afrika)
2,900 killed, wounded or captured
400 transport vehicles
Allies (8th Army)
1,750 killed, wounded or captured
Spellmount Limited, Major-General F.W. von Mellenthin. Stroud, UK, 2008.
Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of Alamein
The Overlook Press, Niall Barr. Woodstock & New York, NY, 2005.
The Crucible of War: Year of Alamein 1942
Paragon House, Barrie Pitt. New York, 1990.
The War in the Mediterranean and the Middle East Volume III. British Fortunes Reach their Lowest Ebb
Naval & Military Press, Major-General I. S. O. Playfair; and others. Uckfield, UK, 2004.
U.S. Combat Studies Institute Battle Report: Alam Halfa
Combat Studies Institute, Major-General G. P. B. Roberts; Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein; Basil Liddell Hart. Fort Leavenworth, KS, 1956.