Second World War, 1939-1945
Battles of El Alamein
El Alamein is a small town on the Egyptian coast, approximately 95 kilometres west of Alexandria. The town stands at the northern end of a 65-kilometre wide bottleneck created between the sea and the impassable Qattara Depression, through which any land force intending to attack the populated areas of eastern Egypt has to pass. For this reason, the British 8th Army, under the command of General Claude Auchinleck, established a series of defensive positions in the area following their retreat from Libya in June 1942.
Axis forces, under the command of General Erwin Rommel, launched their first attack on these positions on 1 July, but a combination of Ultra intelligence on the Allied side and the sheer exhaustion of the Axis force, led to its defeat by the 4th. A series of counter-attacks were subsequently launched to push the Axis forces back, but these were generally poorly co-ordinated and ended with little result. The 9th Australian Division, which had reinforced the 8th Army on 4 July, was involved in attacks on 10, 21-22 and 26-27 July but despite breaking into the enemy defensive line determined resistance, and poor armoured support, prevented these gains being exploited. It suffered 2,552 battle casualties during July.
As both sides were reinforced the opposing defensive positions were developed and a stalemate developed. A new Axis attack attempted to outflank the 8th Army, now commanded by General Bernard Montgomery, to the south, in the vicinity of Alam Halfa Ridge, on 30 August. The materiel superiority of the British Commonwealth force, however, was now telling. The attackers suffered heavily from air attack and dwindling fuel supplies forced their withdrawal on 2 September. On 1 September the 9th Division had launched a small diversionary attack on German positions around Tel El Eisa in the Coastal Sector but this was brought to a premature end after heavy fighting.
Another period of relative inactivity followed as the Axis strengthened their positions and the 8th Army trained and stockpiled ammunition and equipment for its own attack. This began on the night of 23 October with a 908-gun artillery bombardment, followed by an advance by four infantry divisions, including the 9th Australian, on a 16-kilometre front against the northern sector of the Axis defences. This effort initially surprised the Axis, a well-executed deception plan having been implemented in the south during the preceding month, but the strength and depth of defences soon slowed the advance and few of final objectives for the night were captured. An intended armoured thrust thus proved impossible. In succeeding days the 8th Army's main effort was switched to "crumbling" operations against the most heavily defended, and critical, German positions along the railway line and coastal highway. The aim of these was to draw in and destroy German armoured forces from further south and thereby facilitate another breakthrough attempt by the 8th Army.
The 9th Australian Division was tasked with this crumbling role, and between 26 October and 2 November it experienced the most ferocious fighting it was involved in throughout the war. The renewed breakthrough attempt was launched on the night of 1 November. Despite being plagued with the usual command and coordination problems that hampered the employment of armour throughout the desert war, it made gradual progress lessening the pressure on the Australians. By 2 November the Axis forces were short on fuel and other supplies and Rommel sought permission to withdraw, which was denied by Hitler. Continuing attacks caused Axis resistance to finally collapse on 4 November. Permission was at last granted for a withdrawal, beginning a headlong retreat across Libya, harried by the Allied air forces.
This last battle of El Alamein was the first great Allied victory of the war, and finally destroyed the Axis threat to Egypt. Its result was demonstrative of the growing numerical and material superiority of the Allied powers, although the manner in which it was fought, dictated largely by the heavily defended positions along the Alamein line, was reminiscent of the Great War. Casualties were severe; the 8th Army suffered 13,560, the Axis 90,000. The 9th Australian Division lost 620 men killed and another 1,944 were wounded.