The Battle for Egypt

During July 1942 the British Eighth Army and German/Italian Panzerarmee Afrika fought the decisive battle to determine control over Egypt. Prior to this, Eighth Army had suffered a recent series of defeats at Gazala, Tobruk and Mersa Matruh thus prompting the British to conduct a last ditch stand in the vicinity of an unassuming railway stop at El Alamein located some 60 miles west of Alexandria. If the British failed to hold the Germans and Italians here, there was little that would prevent them from advancing all the way to the Nile Delta thus handing them control over most of Egypt and potentially compromising the entire British position in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The battle for dominion over Egypt started on 1 July when the leading formations of the German/Italian Panzerarmee Afrika launched their initial assaults against the British defensive positions along the El Alamein line. Initially, the Axis forces, under the command of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, were unable to make any significant headway against the stout British defences. The fighting continued for a full month as both sides launched a series of attacks and counter attacks to try to gain a battlefield advantage over their opponents. A regular tactic employed by the British at this time was to target the Panzerarmee’s less reliable Italian formations thus scoring a number of local victories that forced Rommel to send his increasingly overstretched German formations to redress the situations.

Some prime examples of this occurred on 3 July when the 2nd New Zealand Division severely mauled the Italian Ariete Division seizing 44 guns and 350 prisoners. A week later the 9th Australian and 1st South African Divisions launched coordinated attacks towards Tel el Eisa and Tel el Makh Khan along the northern portion of the battlefield that gained local territory and largely destroyed the Italian Sabratha Division and the German Signals Intercept Company 621, During this fighting, the Australians were particularly successful taking 3,708 prisoners and inflicting an estimated 2,000 other casualties on their opponents. On 14–16 July the 2nd New Zealand Division and 5th Indian Brigade severely mauled the Italian Pavia and Brescia Divisions on the Ruweisat Ridge collecting another 2,000 prisoners. Finally, on the 17th the 9th Australian Division with British armour support launched a new attack against the Miteirya Ridge where they inflicted heavy losses on the Italian Trento and Trieste Divisions, including the seizure of another 736 prisoners.

By the middle of the month, the ongoing disintegration of these Italian formations, dwindling Axis tank strength and their increasingly difficult supply situation clearly signalled that Rommel had failed in his bid to attain a decisive victory along the El Alamein line. In the last ten days of the fighting, the initiative swung to the British as they sought to attain a knockout blow against their overextended opponents. On the 21st and 22nd various Indian, New Zealand, Australian and British units attacked along a number of points in and around the Ruweisat Ridge and coastal area where they made some initial progress, but then quickly bogged down or were thrown back due to poor follow-up by their supporting arms. Similar results occurred four days later when the Australian 24th and British 69th Brigades launched attacks along the Miteirya Ridge and towards Deir el Dhib. Once again, the assaulting units attained their initial objectives, but were subsequently pushed back by German counter-attacks when their supporting arms failed to arrive.

At the end of July, the fighting finally subsided as exhaustion forced both armies to pause and regroup. With this, what became known as the first battle of El Alamein came to an end. In an overriding sense, both armies had fought each other to a stalemate, but for the British, stalemate equalled victory. Paramount above everything else, the Eighth Army had succeeded in blunting Rommel’s drive to the Nile Delta, thus securing Britain’s continued presence in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. In doing so, it had inflicted heavy losses upon Panzerarmee Afrika, including the seizure of 7,287 prisoners during the period of 1–30 July (of which 6,122 were Italians). Added to this were thousands of additional Axis soldiers that were killed or wounded during the month-long struggle. Likewise, the battle’s outcome put the British in an advantageous position to seize the strategic initiative. Unable to advance and unwilling to pull back, Rommel now found himself at the end of a long and tenuous supply line. By comparison, Eighth Army was literally only a few dozen miles from its key logistical bases. Thus, the British were far better situated to build-up and replenish their forces than was Rommel. They would soon make him pay dearly for his overextension. Yet, for all of its advantages, the cost of this victory had been high as British casualties for the battle numbered roughly 13,250.

Pictured here are a 25-pounder field gun of the 11th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, and a Humber Mk II armoured car of the 12th Royal Lancers during the fighting around El Alamein in July 1942. Windows (Sgt) and McLaren (Lieut), No 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Public Domain. For more information on this and other related topics, see Blue Water War, the Maritime Struggle in the Mediterranean and Middle East, 1940-1945.