Chapter 16: August 1942 and the Battle of Alam El Halfa
See Map 39
IT often happened in the desert war that the comparatively quiet periods which separated the major engagements on land gave the air forces little chance of easing off, although they, like the armies, needed to refit and reorganize and generally renew their strength. The month of August 1942 was no exception.
In the first place it was clearly necessary for the British to continue to attack the enemy’s supply line, and the parts played by Malta’s sea and air forces and by the aircraft of No. 201 Group in doing this were described in Chapter XIII. The serious loss of ships led the enemy to make more use of the air route from Crete, and no less than 500 transport aircraft were being used in the Mediterranean area to carry men and supplies for the German forces in Egypt and Libya.1 It was difficult for the Beaufighters to intercept this traffic, but they had some success at the Cyrenaican end, while the Wellingtons and Liberators attacked the bases in Crete, where they doubtless caused some disorganization and damage.
At this time the main Axis port in North Africa was Tobruk. From here cargoes were moved forward mainly by road, and to some slight extent by railway, and by coasting vessels or barges to Bardia, Sollum or Matruh. Tripoli had almost dropped out of use and only the biggest Axis ships were using Benghazi, which the Liberators alone could reach. Tobruk therefore became the principal target for the night-bombers, and during the month it was attacked night after night almost without a break. Together with raids on the subsidiary ports no less than 1,646 sorties were flown; in other words, fifty bombers on the average were out every night attacking Tobruk and the minor ports and the shipping in or lying off them.
It is a truism that good information is the basis of all successful planning, and the three Services depended upon air reconnaissance to provide them with much of it. Over the sea this important work was done by aircraft based on Malta and by the specialized squadrons of
No. 201 Group. Over the land it was done by No. 240 (later renumbered No. 285) Reconnaissance Wing. Strategic reconnaissance was the task of Spitfires of No. 2 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit and Baltimores of No. 1437 Flight. Between them they covered the ports and landing-grounds along the North African coast as far west as Derna, and penetrated inland as far as Siwa and Jarabub. In so doing they were able to report when movement on the coast road offered suitable targets for the Beaufighters. No. 208 Squadron undertook most of the tactical reconnaissance, both visual and photographic, its tasks being to watch the forward area for movement, observe for the artillery, and locate targets for the air support squadrons. The Tomahawk Is and Hurricanes I and IIA with which No. 208 Squadron was still equipped suffered heavily at the hands of enemy fighters, but a proposal to rearm it with Spitfires was not approved by the Air Ministry, on the ground that the Spitfires were too valuable for low-altitude work. This decision was disappointing to those who had learned the value of good battlefield reconnaissance.
Soon after the middle of the month distinct signs of a trend of movement towards the southern sector of the El Alamein line began to be apparent, and the enemy’s fighters seemed anxious to discourage any inquisitiveness on the part of the British. New tactics were therefore tried, in which the tactical reconnaissance aircraft were sent out with an escort of two or even three fighter squadrons each, in search of information which should give a clue to the enemy’s intentions. In this way the essential information was obtained. It has been said that in war each side gets the information it deserves: certainly the 8th Army and Desert Air Force had good reason to be grateful to No. 208 Squadron for the information it strove so hard to obtain. It was exacting work, and during the month the Squadron flew 242 sorties and lost eight pilots and eight aircraft. Fifteen other aircraft were damaged.
The essential fact is that the enemy’s preliminary moves had been detected, and towards the end of the month this led to plenty of targets being found for the fighter-bombers and light bombers. Whereas these had flown in all 481 sorties against battlefield targets up to the 20th August, in the next ten days they flew 492. On the 21st August ‘round the clock’ bombing began again, with the Wellingtons also attacking battlefield targets. The Panzerarmee later reported that the continual heavy air attacks by day and night before the commencement of the operation against Alam el Halfa caused many casualties to men and much damage to equipment and affected the morale of both German and Italian troops.
It was of course realized that the enemy’s air forces must not be allowed to grow stronger unmolested, and attacks on their landing-grounds, especially those from which the German fighters and dive-bombers were known to operate, were carried out throughout the
month. A notable success was gained on the night 8th/9th August and the following day, when Qotafiya was attacked repeatedly and ten aircraft are known to have been destroyed or damaged. The total effort expended in this type of attack was equivalent to six aircraft attacking one landing-ground or another every day of the month.
During August the Fliegerführer Afrika, General von Waldau, left to take command of Fliegerkorps X based on Greece and Crete. He was succeeded by Major-General Hans Seidemann, previously Chief of Staff of Luftflotte 2, who held the appointment until the end of the North African campaign. The month was largely spent by the enemy’s air forces in North Africa in building up their strength. They were greatly handicapped by shortage of fuel, especially during the first half of the month. Thereafter the German fighters were very active, which necessitated the strong British air escorts already referred to. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean the enemy air forces were mainly occupied in making a few weak and unsuccessful attacks on Alexandria and Port Said, and in opposing the passage of the PEDESTAL convoy (described in Chapter XIII). Excluding the fighter-bombers, the British fighters in North Africa flew an average of over 160 sorties on offensive and protective tasks every day.
Thus although the clash on land did not occur until the end of the month, the Royal Air Force had already done a great deal towards weakening the enemy by attacking his air forces, his troops and transport, his supply routes, ports and ships. On all these tasks, other than anti-shipping operations and those from Malta, the Middle East flew an average of 260 sorties every day. At least 61 aircraft (33 German and 28 Italian) were destroyed in North Africa for the loss of 52 British—a remarkable result considering that it was the British who were for most of the time carrying the war to the enemy. For the whole of the Mediterranean and Middle East the figures for August were: German 92, Italian 46, and British 122.
The month of August had been a depressing time for Rommel, conscious of his failure in July, irritated by the stalemate, and never able to forget that shiploads of men and equipment were daily drawing nearer to Suez. His own prospects of reinforcement were slight, and he calculated that he must either attack the British before they could benefit from the convoys expected early in September or give up the initiative altogether.
His study of the tactical situation convinced him that General Montgomery would give battle on the present ground, for a mere delaying position would not have had so much work done on it. The defences in the northern and central parts of the front, as far south as Alam Nayil, seemed to be well developed and strongly held, but between
this point and the Qattara depression they were very different. With his fondness for manoeuvre Rommel saw a chance of applying his familiar design of a break-through in the south followed by a sweep up towards the coast, cutting the main road and taking the defenders of the northern sector in rear. To carry out this plan he would want to make an approach march by moonlight, which meant that the operation must begin at the end of August. The operation would be the first phase of a renewed attempt to capture the Suez Canal.
This brought to a head the troublesome matter of supplies. Consumption had been greatly in excess of the amounts arriving by sea, and stocks of all kinds—particularly fuel and ammunition—were running dangerously low.2 Rommel reported on the 22nd that, if the Panzerarmee was to attack at the end of August, shipments of about 6,000 tons of fuel and 2,500 tons of ammunition must reach Libya by specified dates between 25th and 30th August. Comando Supremo promised to do everything possible, and sent seven ships, carrying 10,000 tons of fuel, half for the Panzerarmee and half aviation spirit for the Luftwaffe. (In the event four of the seven ships were sunk.) These were to be followed by others a few days later.3 By 29th August only about 1,500 tons had arrived at Tobruk for the army, but for the reason already given Rommel could not merely postpone his attack until everything was ready. He decided to take a chance on gaining a quick success, and notified OKH that the shortage of fuel and ammunition would restrict the coming offensive to the vicinity of El Alamein and that it would start the next evening.
A further trouble over petrol lay in getting it distributed. Tobruk is 350 miles by road from El Alamein and the process of moving supplies from ship to consumer took a long time. At the forward end Rommel could not afford to run very low unless he was sure that fresh supplies were being fed into the ‘pipeline’, which consisted mainly of road transport and itself consumed a large quantity of the precious petrol. Apart from this it suffered appreciable losses from air attack. It seems that the fuel available on 30th August was, if a promise by Kesselring to help the Panzerarmee from the Luftwaffe’s stock is taken into account, enough for about 150 miles per vehicle with the troops, and about 250 miles per vehicle elsewhere.
Another cause of anxiety to Rommel was the state of his own health.
He had long been suffering from a stomach complaint which was now aggravated by the mental and physical strain of the past weeks and by the climate. On 22nd August he informed OKH that he was ill, and asked for a substitute in time for the coming offensive. He suggested Guderian, but was informed on the 24th that no suitable Panzer General was available. If necessary the Führer would agree to Kesselring assuming supreme command in Africa, with Nehring as Army Commander and von Vaerst as Commander of the DAK. Rommel replied that he now felt well enough to command the operation under medical supervision, but would then have to take a long cure in Germany. In these circumstances it is not surprising that the old fire and enthusiasm were lacking, and that the Rommel of Alam el Halfa was not the Rommel of Gazala and Tobruk.
Map No. 39 shows the outline of the plan of attack, which was simple and bold. The striking force, having concentrated stealthily between Bab el Qattara and the plateau at El Taqa, would move forward at 11 p.m. on 30th August. The advance was at first to be eastward, but a subsequent wheel to the left would bring the whole force into line facing north. Reconnaissance Units 3 and 33 would then be on the eastern or outer flank; next, the DAK; then the 20th Italian Corps; then the 90th Light Division; and lastly a strong mixed group under 10th Corps whose purpose was to hold open the ‘hinge’.4 From these positions the striking force would advance north at 6 a.m. and encircle the enemy. This meant that the DAK had seven hours in which to go thirty miles and be ready to advance again to the attack. Seeing that this distance had to he covered at night over almost entirely unreconnoitred ground, known to be mined, but to an unknown extent, and against a degree of opposition that could only be guessed at, it is evident that the timing was, to say the least, wildly optimistic. In the event the plan failed to achieve either the surprise or the speed upon which its success depended. As for surprise, General Montgomery and his Intelligence Staff had read the signs correctly and were expecting just such a move, for which the 8th Army and the Desert Air Force were consequently ready. As for speed, the enemy had rightly appreciated that minefields can be crossed but had failed to allow anything like enough time for doing so.
On the remainder of the front the troops of 10th and 21st Corps, the Ramcke Parachute Brigade and the 164th Division were to hold their positions, and make raids during the night of 30th/31st August to mislead the British and capture prisoners for purpose of identification. From daylight 31st August the Luftwaffe was to support the striking
force and maintain fighter patrols over it; Italian fighters were to protect the 20th Corps. There was to be no preliminary air action against the British positions.
General Montgomery confidently expected that the enemy’s blow would be directed against the 13th Corps’ sector. To the north lay the 30th Corps consisting of three Divisions—the 9th Australian, 1st South African and 5th Indian—all in considerable depth. The 23rd Armoured Brigade of three regiments of Valentine tanks was in Corps Reserve near the eastern end of the Ruweisat ridge.
The 13th Corps (Lieut.-General B. G. Horrocks) consisted of:
New Zealand Division
5th and 6th NZ Infantry Brigades and the 132nd Infantry Brigade;5
131st and 133rd Infantry Brigades;
7th Armoured Division
4th Light Armoured Brigade and 7th Motor Brigade Groups;
10th Armoured Division
8th and 22nd Armoured Brigade Groups.
The turned-back left flank of the New Zealand Division formed a stiff shoulder which could remain in place without the support of the relatively weak 7th Armoured Division to the south. In rear of the New Zealand Division’s position was the Alam el Halfa ridge, originally chosen by General Auchinleck to be a defended locality, and now strongly fortified and held by the 44th Division. General Horrocks’s plan was for the New Zealand and 44th Divisions to hold their ground to the last, while in the south the 7th Armoured Division, on its wide front, was to delay and harass the enemy as much as possible. It was so likely that the enemy would try to seize the Alam el Halfa ridge that the 22nd Armoured Brigade was placed in dug-in positions at the western end, where the fire of its tanks and the 6-pdr anti-tank guns of its motor battalion could be united with that of the supporting artillery in a strong defensive fire plan. The 8th Armoured Brigade was placed to the east, on the flank of the enemy’s expected line of advance. Various stratagems were adopted to mislead the enemy.6
It is interesting to note that General Montgomery was even now planning his own offensive, which eventually took place in October. For this purpose he intended to form a corps strong in armour—the 10th Corps—on the lines of the DAK. He therefore told General Horrocks that in repelling the enemy at Alam el Halfa he was on no account to allow the British armour to become mauled. The Army Commander’s basic idea at this time was to build up and train the 8th Army before launching it in an ‘all out’ attempt to destroy the enemy.
The role of the Desert Air Force in the coming battle was to make continuous attacks on the enemy in the forward area by day and night, consistent with preventing the Luftwaffe from intervening. As things turned out the air played a very important part, so that the comparative strength of air forces on both sides at the end of August is of particular interest. Since the convoy operations in mid-August, described in Chapter XIII, the defence of Sicily and the attacks on Malta had devolved almost entirely upon the Italian Air Force, while German air strength was being moved to the help of Rommel. Some fighters had come from Russia and the long-range bomber force in Crete had been built up to 229 aircraft, about half of which were serviceable. In North Africa, where their activity had been kept low, the Axis air forces had grown to about 720 aircraft in all, of which about 450 were serviceable. In the Western Desert the British could muster 565, of which roughly 400 were serviceable, apart from a small number of Fleet Air Arm aircraft. Behind them No. 205 Group had 140 medium and 25 heavy bombers, of which rather more than half were available at a time. There were also the small force of Liberators, the few Fortresses and some of the newly arrived Mitchells and Kittyhawk IIs of the United States Army Air Force.7 The numerical balance was thus fairly even; indeed in fighters it was almost exactly so, though most of the British fighters were still Hurricane Is and IIs.
The Order of Battle of the Desert Air Force during the battle of Alam el Halfa, including other air formations available in support, is given in Appendix 5.
It has already been described how the southward moves of the enemy’s striking force had been detected from the air. At last light on 30th August the final concentrations were seen and were quickly attacked by Wellingtons and flare-dropping Albacores. In 30th Corps’ sector the raids and diversionary attacks took place just before and after midnight; the strongest was made against the 9th Indian
Infantry Brigade on the Ruweisat ridge, where some ground was lost and regained by a counter-attack at dawn. Each of the three South African Infantry Brigades also carried out raids during the night, in one of which 56 Italian prisoners were taken.
By about 2 a.m. on the 31st the enemy’s striking force had reached the first minefield, not without some intermingling of units and other confusion. Strongly opposed by the 7th Motor and 4th Light Armoured Brigades, it was soon in difficulty with the mines, and under renewed attack from the air made desperately slow progress.8 General Nehring was wounded in an air attack and his Chief of Staff, Colonel Bayerlein, took temporary command of the DAK. At about 9 a.m. Rommel arrived; in view of the depressing start he was inclined to call a halt. After discussion with Bayerlein, however, he decided not to give up without trying to capture Alam el Halfa, and the attack intended for 6 a.m. was ordered to begin at noon. The wheel was to be slightly reduced, bringing the DAK into the position originally intended for the 20th Corps, that is, opposite the western half of the Alam el Halfa ridge, instead of the eastern. Nothing could have suited the British better.
The DAK had great difficulty in forming up on account of a dust-storm, which however saved them from air attack since flying was hampered for much of the day. They got off to a late and ragged start—15th Panzer Division at about 1 p.m. and 21st Panzer an hour later. Two miles south of the 22nd Armoured Brigade’s position two squadrons of Crusader tanks had been stationed to decoy the enemy on to the Brigade’s dug-in Grants and the 6-pdr anti-tanks guns of its motor battalion—1st The Rifle Brigade.9 The 15th Panzer Division did not take the bait, but headed east, followed forty-five minutes later by 21st Panzer. The 22nd Armoured Brigade therefore showed some of its tanks, whereupon 21st Panzer wheeled round and headed for the 3rd/4th County of London Yeomanry in the centre. A fierce duel began in which the Royal Scots Greys, the 1st and 104th Regiments RHA, and part of the 44th Divisional Artillery joined to give the enemy tanks a hot reception. The 15th Panzer Division to the northeast circled round to threaten 5th RTR/2nd RGH on the left of the Brigade’s line, but darkness was falling, the consumption of fuel over bad ‘going’ had been heavy, and General von Vaerst, now in command of the DAK, called the attack off. General Bismarck of the 21st Panzer Division had been killed earlier in the day.
Elsewhere nothing much had occurred. The 7th Armoured Division had fallen back before the Reconnaissance Group; the Littorio and Ariete Divisions had come up on the left of the DAK with the Trieste behind them, and the 90th Light Division and the 10th Corps Group faced the New Zealand Division’s southern flank.
On the British side General Montgomery was well satisfied with the day’s events. As soon as both Panzer Divisions had been identified he had placed 23rd Armoured Brigade (less three squadrons) at General Horrocks’s disposal and by 1 p.m. it had moved into the gap between the New Zealand Division and the 22nd Armoured Brigade, under command of the 10th Armoured Division (Major-General A. H. Gatehouse), thus strengthening the Alam el Halfa area by 100 Valentine tanks.
By nightfall the dust had subsided and the Royal Air Force came out in strength. The arena in which the enemy lay was lit up by flares, and tremendous havoc was caused by the night-bombers among the concentrations of transport. A night of continuous bombing left a pall of smoke from countless petrol fires and burning vehicles. Of this and the next few nights the DAK recorded that not only was the damage very great but officers and men were badly shaken and their fighting capacity considerably reduced by the enforced dispersal, lack of sleep, and the strain of waiting for the next bomb.
Early on 1st September the 15th Panzer Division began to work round the east flank of 22nd Armoured Brigade. The 21st Panzer Division was inactive, probably from lack of petrol, having been unable to replenish during the night. The 8th Armoured Brigade had already been ordered to move across and make contact with the 22nd but when they tried to do so they found that the 15th Panzer Division had established a strong anti-tank screen which held them off.10 However, this tactical success brought the enemy little advantage for at about noon Rommel announced that there was little hope of getting enough petrol forward and that he was going over to the defensive where he stood.
As soon as General Montgomery was satisfied that the enemy’s main force was committed to the Alam el Halfa area, he ordered the 30th Corps to thin out and form reserves, and move the 2nd South African Brigade to a position north of Alam el Halfa. He called forward a brigade of the 50th Division from airfield protection, in which it was replaced by a brigade of the newly arrived 51st Division. The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was placed under the New Zealand Division, and General Freyberg was warned to get ready to attack southwards from Alam Nayil towards Himeimat.
Early on the same day the 9th Australian Division had carried out a long-prepared operation to the west of Tell el Eisa. The 2/15th Australian Battalion, supported by a force of day-bombers, sprang a surprise on the enemy, but a fierce struggle ensued in which communications became disrupted and the bridgehead through which a raiding party was to issue could not be held. About 140 prisoners of the 164th (German) Division were taken and the Australians had 135 casualties. Seven Valentine tanks of the 40th RTR were knocked out.
The 1st September marked the end of the main battle from the enemy’s point of view, although he was to be given no respite from the air. The day-bombers, including the few American Mitchells, had dropped, in the course of 111 sorties that day, some 80 tons of bombs. The British fighters flew 372 sorties and prevented several attempts by Stukas to retaliate, forcing them to abandon their dive-bombing tactics and take to level-bombing, for which they were ill-adapted. That night the Wellingtons were again active over the rearward area of the DAK and used some 4,000-lb. bombs with devastating effect. The heavy bombers visited Tobruk and ports in Crete, and attacked and damaged the Picci Fassio and Abruzzi at sea.
During the morning of 2nd September Rommel gave orders for a deliberate withdrawal, spread over several days, to positions just west of the British minefields. In a report to OKW he gave as his reasons the shortage of petrol, the bad start, the delay imposed by mines and the incessant air attacks by day and night. He had just had word of the sinking of the Picci Fassio; this meant that even if the Bianchi and Sporlivo arrived safely it would be 7th September before petrol supplies could be assured.11
Although it was clear to General Montgomery that Rommel had shot his bolt, he resisted the temptation to start a general counterattack. He judged the 8th Army to be unready, and going off at half-cock would only make it harder to prepare for the decisive blow he had in mind. He therefore ordered that the enemy was to be harassed vigorously, but that the only staged attack would be the one being prepared by General Freyberg with the object of closing the minefield gaps behind the enemy’s striking force. This was now timed to take place on the night of 3rd/4th September.
As a preliminary step the 132nd Infantry Brigade was relieved by the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, and became available for the attack. The front was to extend for about 4 miles east from the ‘hinge’ at Alam Nayil, though the three minefields would canalize the attack into two separate lines of advance. The objectives of the first phase on the northern edge of the Deir el Munassib were about three miles distant; for the second phase—a further advance of three miles—the 151st Infantry Brigade would come under General Freyberg’s command on
4th September. The 7th Armoured Division was to exert pressure westward from Samaket Gaballa all the time.
General Freyberg’s plan was to attack at 10.30 p.m. on 3rd September with the 132nd Infantry Brigade on the right (west) and the 5th New Zealand Brigade on the left, each with one squadron of Valentine tanks, from 46th and 50th RTR respectively. The operation was to begin silently, but six field and two medium artillery regiments were to be ready in support. The 6th New Zealand Brigade was to create a diversion by raids at about I z p.m. and was to secure the 132nd Brigade’s right flank.
The raids by the 6th New Zealand Brigade found the enemy on the alert and raised a hornet’s nest. Unfortunately the 132nd Brigade had had much difficulty in reaching its start-line, which it crossed nearly an hour late.12 The enemy was by then thoroughly roused and met the advancing infantry with machine-gun and mortar fire. There was much straggling and general confusion, which took some time to sort out. The Brigade Commander (Brigadier C. B. Robertson) was severely wounded and Brigadier Clifton, of the 6th New Zealand Brigade, who had gone forward to reconnoitre, drove into an enemy position and was captured.13 On the left the 5th New Zealand Brigade’s attack went in punctually and after brisk fighting reached its objective—indeed the 28th Maori Battalion penetrated beyond it, captured several enemy posts and did much damage to transport. Shortly after noon the enemy counter-attacked and was beaten off, and a second attempt was broken up by the fire of the New Zealand Divisional Artillery, backed up by the day-bombers.14
The enemy’s vigorous reaction (which, after all, was only to be expected) made it unlikely that a renewal of the attack would succeed. Rather than leave the troops out in very exposed positions General Freyberg advised a complete withdrawal, with which Generals Horrocks and Montgomery agreed. It was carried out after dark, but not without further losses. The attempt to close the minefield gaps had therefore failed. It had caused the enemy no more than passing concern, a disappointing result in view of the high casualties, the New Zealanders having lost 275 officers and men and the 132nd Brigade—whose first battle it was-697 killed, wounded, and missing.
On 2nd September there had been even more British aircraft operating over the Desert than on the previous day, and on the 3rd Field-Marshal Kesselring issued a Special Order exhorting Luftwaffe pilots to protect their sorely oppressed comrades of the Panzerarmee.
He ordered Seidemann to provide the army with dawn-to-dusk cover against low and high flying aircraft, and, taking a leaf from the RAF’s book, he arranged for a continuous air attack to be made that night on the area occupied by the 5th Indian Division. This began shortly before 10 p.m. and lasted all night, but caused very few casualties.
The 3rd September had been another strenuous day for the Royal Air Force. Counting reconnaissance flights and the operations of the previous night the sorties for the twenty-four hours reached the record total of 957, and 230 tons of bombs were dropped. This marked the climax of a period of three days in which circumstances had been unusually favourable for the use of a strong air force in support of a defensive land battle. The British dispositions were well known and changed but little, so that there were no difficulties over identification; everything within a clearly defined arena was hostile, and free to be attacked. Moreover, the enemy’s troops and vehicles advancing—and later retreating—over the stony surface had little opportunity to provide themselves with any cover and were consequently very exposed and vulnerable. Into this arena more than 750 bombloads had been dropped in the seventy-two hours. In all, a force of less than 500 available aircraft had flown 2,500 sorties in support of the 8th Army, which is equivalent to 35 aircraft in the air every hour, day and night. In addition, the United States Army Air Force had contributed nearly 180 sorties with its Liberators, Mitchells and Kittyhawk IIs.15
During the next few days the enemy withdrew to the westernmost of the three British minefields, followed up lightly by the 7th and 10th Armoured Divisions. The RAF also harassed the enemy but less intensively than hitherto. This was partly because sandstorms interfered and partly because the wastage in British fighters now made it necessary to use most of them on fighter sweeps to counter the enemy’s activity in the air, rather than as escorts to the day-bombers. By 7th September the battle had died down and General Montgomery began to reorganize his Army and to take in hand the important matter of training the new 10th Corps. His decision not to recapture the high ground at Himeimat is an interesting instance of looking ahead, his reason being that he had already decided to mislead the enemy into thinking that the British offensive would be made in the south, and he therefore thought it wise to leave him with a good vantage-point from which to observe the bogus preparations.
In the week’s fighting the Germans had 1,859 killed, wounded, and
missing, and the Italians 1,051. German losses of equipment included 33 guns, 298 vehicles and 38 tanks destroyed, and large numbers were damaged; the Italians lost 22 guns, 97 vehicles and 11 tanks. The British had 1,750 casualties, and 67 tanks and 15 anti-tank guns put out of action. In the air the losses from all causes were 36 German aircraft, 5 Italian, and 68 British.
Thirty-one of the British tank casualties were Grants; five in the 22nd Armoured Brigade and thirteen in the 8th were destroyed, and the rest damaged. Of the other British tank losses twenty-one were suffered by those Valentines which were being used as ‘I’ tanks, a role for which they were no longer thought suitable. Indeed, the Middle East felt that they had no assault tank capable of tackling strongly defended positions: the Valentine was too light, the Matilda too slow, and both still mounted only a 2-pdr gun. The Matilda’s long and valuable service was in fact coming to an end, for on 6th September the War Office was asked not to send out any more to the Middle East.
The extent of the British success at Alam el Halfa is to be measured less by its material results than by its effect on morale. To the Axis the battle seemed to put an end to their hopes of reaching the Delta. To the British it appeared as a clear-cut victory in which Rommel had been defeated at his own game. True, the minor operations at Tell el Eisa had achieved little, and the attempt to close the minefield gap was a failure. Of far greater importance, however, was the stimulus that had been given to morale: the confidence of the 8th Army in itself, in its Commander, and in the Royal Air Force, rose to quite new heights. What had been plain for all to see was the benefit of concentrating resources, which was made possible by a particularly accurate forecast of what Rommel was going to do. This meant that the enemy’s striking force could be met on ground of the defenders’ choice by a tremendous volume of fire: from the air with a rain of projectiles ranging from machine-gun bullets to 4,000-lb. bombs, and from the ground with the concentrated fire of field and medium artillery, antitank guns, and the guns of the dug-in tanks, notably the Grants.
The true view of this success on the desert battlefield is that it was the complement of the successes at sea against the enemy’s shipping, for these lay at the root of all his shortages. The cumulative effect of the work of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force had been to weaken the Panzerarmee, and the battle of Alam el Halfa supplied the finishing touch to this phase of the combined struggle.