Midnight in the Devil’s Gardens

July 1942–May 1943

Rommel, Rommel, Rommel! What else matters but beating him?

Winston Churchill to Brigadier Ian Jacob, August 19421

General Sir Claude Auchinleck did not really deserve to be removed from his command in North Africa in August 1942. ‘The Auk’ had stopped Rommel’s Panzer Army from breaking through his defensive lines based on the Ruweisat Ridge at the first battle of El Alamein in early July, taking 7,000 prisoners, and had laid sound plans for a full-scale counter-attack in the autumn, but had warned the High Command in London that this could not be launched until September at the earliest. Churchill and Brooke visited Cairo, and Auchinleck was rewarded for his caution by being offered the command of forces in the Middle East instead, a definite demotion, which he refused. Although after a year he was appointed to the post of commander-in-chief in India, he was never to see battlefield service again. Taking over the Near East command was General Sir Harold Alexander, with the brilliant Lieutenant-General William ‘Strafer’ Gott at the helm of by far its largest component, the Eighth Army, which had already suffered no fewer than 80,000 casualties during its short existence.2 As a brigadier Gott had led the armoured strike force for Operation Brevity in May 1941, the first attempt to relieve Tobruk. Yet just as Gott flew back from the desert to meet Churchill in Cairo before taking up his command, travelling in a slow and unescorted Bristol Bombay passenger plane, it was attacked by six Messerschmitt Me-109s from Jagdgeschwader 27, and crash-landed in flames. Four of the twenty-one people on board survived, but not Gott. The second choice for the post had been Brooke’s protégé, the fifty-five-year-old Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, who was flown out post-haste, and took up the Eighth Army command at Ruweisat Ridge at 11 a.m. on Thursday, 13 August 1942.

There are a number of pitfalls in attempting to delve into the minds of generals at a distance of seven decades, and the results of doing so are often meaningless psychobabble. But if anyone makes a fascinating candidate for the psychiatrist’s sofa, it is Montgomery. The fourth child of a vicar who became Anglican bishop of Tasmania, he cut off all contact with his unloving mother to the extent of boycotting her funeral.3 After an academically undistinguished time at the London day school St Paul’s, Montgomery went to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, where he bullied a fellow cadet so badly by setting fire to his coat-tails that the young man required hospitalization.4 He then served on the North-West Frontier of India with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Montgomery had a good First World War, leading an attack at Ypres in which he took one German prisoner by kicking him in the testicles. On another occasion a grave was dug for him at a dressing-station, so unlikely did it seem that he would survive his wounds, but instead of an early interment he won the Distinguished Service Order, and ended the war as a brevet lieutenant-colonel. After marrying in 1927 and having a son, his wife Betty died tragically in 1938 from septicaemia, from an insect bite on her foot which even the amputation of her leg had failed to halt. The emotional side of his life closed down after her death, and total concentration on soldiering took over; he even became teetotal (not in any sense a British Army tradition). The professor of military history at Oxford, Hew Strachan, has written that:

Montgomery’s great strengths lay in training, careful preparation and method; above all, he integrated artillery into an all-arms battle. He accepted that battles swung on fire-power and the exploitation of ground, as much as on movement, and he emphasized that they were about killing and being prepared to be killed. He expressed all this in a language that was direct and even attritional.5

Disciplined, focused, adaptable, a meticulous planner, quick to dismiss the incompetent, respectful of the Germans’ capacity for counter-attack, for all that Montgomery was irascible, opinionated and egotistical he was also the greatest British field commander since the Duke of Wellington. As one historian has noted, ‘Generals should not be judged by their party manners.’ If Montgomery was vain, he had plenty to be vain about.

Montgomery had performed well on the retreat to Dunkirk, and although he had been in part responsible for the initial planning of the disastrous Dieppe Raid of August 1942, he had at least suggested that it be abandoned before it was undertaken. By the time he got to the Western Desert he had worked out in what way he wanted to fight his duel with Rommel differently from the way his three predecessors – Alan Cunningham, Neil Ritchie and Claude Auchinleck – had fought theirs. Unlike them, he would not seek to chase the Desert Fox back and forth along the North African littoral between Egypt and Tunisia. Instead he would try to bring the Afrika Korps to a single great, Clausewitzian decisive battle, and break its power for ever. As he told his Eighth Army officer corps in a short speech on the evening of his first day in command:

I understand that Rommel is about to attack at any moment. Excellent. Let him attack. I would sooner it didn’t come for a week, just to give me time to sort things out. If we have two weeks to prepare we will be sitting pretty; Rommel can attack as soon as he likes after that and I hope he does… Meanwhile, we ourselves will start to plan a great offensive; it will be the beginning of a campaign which will hit Rommel for six right out of Africa… He is definitely a nuisance. Therefore we will hit him a crack and finish with him.6

Such a pep-talk might today sound like absurd hyperbole from a hitherto minor commander speaking of a strategic giant who had not lost an important battle, and moreover was well inside Egypt. But, nine months later to the day, the Afrika Korps – which was to lose a total of 5,250 vehicles during 1942 – surrendered in Tunisia.7

The depredations of desert warfare were well described in the British propaganda film Desert Victory, and included boiling days but freezing nights; bathing in one’s shaving mug for want of water; sandstorms that lasted many days (in some traditional Arab lore, murder was acceptable after the fifth); mosquitoes, flies and scorpions; and a landscape so desolate that a compass was as important a tool as to a sailor. Of the local inhabitants, one divisional history recorded: ‘If they could have carried it away, they’d have stolen the air out of the tyres.’8

Rommel attacked the Alam el Halfa Ridge seventeen days after Monty’s first speech, on 30 August, and destroyed sixty-seven British tanks for the loss of forty-nine of his own. But within twenty-four hours British minefields, warplanes and artillery had slowed his Panzers’ advance to a crawl, and that day the Germans got as far eastwards in Africa as they were ever going to; their 3,000 casualties were almost twice the Eighth Army’s 1,750. Rommel himself only narrowly avoided death when the Desert Air Force (DAF) bombed and strafed his Kampfstaffel (tactical headquarters).

For the rest of the summer and into the autumn of 1942 the two armies faced one another at the obscure desert railway stop of El Alamein, each being resupplied as best they could organize. Here lay the key to Montgomery’s victory. Because both Benghazi and Tobruk could not be properly protected by the Luftwaffe, and were thus heavily bombed by the Allies, most of the Axis supplies came to Tripoli via Naples and Sicily. Yet whereas in 1941 the average monthly delivery of motor fuel to Axis forces in Africa had been 4,884 tons, because the Tripoli-to-El Alamein return journey was over 2,000 miles long, and German trucks consumed a litre of fuel for every 2 miles covered, the Afrika Korps required 5,776 tons of fuel per month by 1942 as a result of its extended supply lines.9With the DAF destroying lorries carrying fuel to Rommel along the only road that was worthy of the name, as Frederick von Mellenthin recorded, ‘Petrol stocks were almost exhausted, and an armoured division without petrol is little better than a heap of scrap iron.’10 One Afrika Korps divisional commander, General Hans Cramer, believed El Alamein to have been ‘lost before it was fought. We had not the petrol.’11

Aircraft and submarines stationed at Malta ceaselessly harried the Axis lines of communication. An unsinkable Allied aircraft carrier, Malta now became the most heavily bombed place on earth. The island was awarded the George Cross in April 1942 for its stalwart courage under near-permanent attack, one of only 106 recipients between 1940 and 1947. (The only other collective recipient would be the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in 1999.) A problem developed when the devoutly religious Governor of Malta, Lieutenant-General Sir William Dobbie, would not allow the garrison to work on Sundays. In the view of the military historian John Keegan, this Sabbatarianism effectively allowed two of the few ships which succeeded in running the Axis blockade to be sunk with their cargoes at their moorings, a fact not mentioned in Dobbie’s autobiography, entitled On Active Service with Christ.12

Yet if Rommel’s supply routes were long at more than 1,000 miles, Montgomery’s were twelve times longer. Most Allied troops and equipment had to come around the Cape of Good Hope, menaced all the way by U-boats, and the rest along the shorter but also dangerous air route across central Africa and up the Nile Valley. This was described in Desert Victory as the longest line of communication in the history of warfare. However, the proximity of the Middle Eastern oil meant that in the twelve months after August 1941 Commonwealth ground and air forces in Egypt received no less than 342,000 tons of oil products.13 The logistics could be complicated: for example, the Allies’ four types of tank – Shermans, Crusaders, Grants and Stuarts – ran on three different types of fuel. Yet, whereas in August 1942 Churchill had privately described the Eighth Army as ‘a broken, baffled army, a miserable army’, by October its huge reinforcement and strange but charismatic new commander had changed all that.

It has been argued that Rommel should never have offered battle at El Alamein, only 60 miles west of Alexandria, but ought instead to have withdrawn back along his extended lines of communication into Libya once it had become obvious that the interdictions of the Royal Navy and DAF meant that he was being resupplied at only a fraction of the rate of his antagonist. But Jodl’s deputy General Warlimont had explained to Rommel’s Staff in July the importance of remaining at El Alamein. He spoke of Kleist’s plans to invade Persia and Iraq from the Caucasus and pointed out that it was essential to have the Allies tied up defending Egypt rather than sending troops to other parts of the Middle East.14 Furthermore, the prizes of victory in Egypt were dazzling for Rommel. Alexandria was the headquarters of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet; Suez was the gateway to Britain’s Indian Empire; Cairo was the largest city in Africa and the centre of British power in the region, just as the Nile Delta was the route to Iran, Iraq and the oilfields of the Middle East. The Wehrmacht had pulled off astonishing coups regularly over the previous three years despite a growing paucity of men, equipment and fuel, so it was felt to be far too early to give up such hard-won ground.

The lull in fighting after the battle of Alam el Halfa allowed Montgomery – who with his taste for multi-badged service berets and eccentric dress was very consciously transforming himself into the much loved public figure known as Monty – to train his army. Detailed orders went out from his headquarters – a caravan in the desert which featured a postcard photograph of Rommel – concerning every aspect of the army’s logistics, fitness, equipment, morale, organization and discipline. Many of the reinforcements he was being sent had never fought in the desert, and his belief in intensive training was put into full operation in the weeks of relative calm. This led Montgomery to take a firm stance with Churchill, who was pressing for an early attack. The best that Alexander would offer Downing Street was the promise of being sent a codeword – Zip – when the great assault finally began.15 Alexander’s determination to leave Montgomery alone might have frustrated the Prime Minister but it was the right thing to do. Alexander – who tap-danced in regimental talent shows – was a cool commander, who ran his Staff mess in a way that Harold Macmillan, the Minister Resident in North-West Africa, equated to an Oxford high table, where the war was ‘politely ignored’ as they instead discussed ‘the campaigns of Belisarius, the advantages of classical over Gothic architecture, or the best ways to drive pheasants in flat country’.16

In hoping to drive Rommel back over the very flat country, special-forces attacks were made in mid-September against Tobruk (Operation Agreement) and Benghazi (Operation Bigamy). Operation Agreement was badly compromised from the start after a clash at a roadblock, and cost the lives of 750 men, the cruiser HMS Coventry and two destroyers with little to show for it. Bigamy was an attractive idea in theory, but ultimately turned out to be expensive and not worth the effort. Although the Long Range Desert Group did destroy twenty-five enemy aircraft at Barce, that was its only real success, and afterwards the Germans used second-line units to garrison their staging areas, freeing up first-class troops for the coming battle.17 Meanwhile, Rommel fell ill with stomach and liver complaints, high blood pressure, sinusitis and a sore throat, and so on 23 September he flew back to Germany for a long period of leave, passing on his command to an Eastern Front veteran, the obese and unfit General Georg Stumme. He was therefore not even in Africa on 23 October 1942, when Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot, the first phase of the second battle of El Alamein.

As we have already seen, after his fighting retreat of 400 miles earlier in the year Auchinleck had originally chosen El Alamein for his defensive lines because there was only a 40-mile gap between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the impassable salt-marshes of the Qattara Depression, an area the size of Ulster, to the south. Yet this same narrowness now worked in Rommel’s favour, when he was forced on to the defensive by sheer weight of numbers. Whoever attacked at El Alamein, it was always going to be a battle of attrition rather than movement, far more reminiscent of the Western Front of the First World War than the sweeping Blitzkrieg manoeuvres of the Second.

Montgomery hoped that the Germans would be distracted by a diversionary attack in the south of the battlefield by Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks’ XIII Corps, while full frontal infantry attacks by Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese’s XXX Corps towards the Miteiriya and Kidney Ridges in the north were exploited by the 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions of Lieutenant-General Herbert Lumsden’s X Corps driving through and rolling up the Axis defences from behind.

The Axis front line was defended by vast minefields of between 5,000 and 9,000 feet in depth, comprising half a million mines and nicknamed the Devil’s Gardens by the Germans.18 Teller anti-tank mines, packing 11 pounds of TNT, destroyed vehicles but were not set off by infantrymen (though they were by camels), while the Springen mines sprang to midriff-height after being stepped on, before exploding with 360 ball bearings. Hidden beneath the sand, they were hard to detect even in daylight. Clearing a path through the minefields for the infantry would be sappers using detection equipment that was in its infancy and involved poking the sand with bayonets, often while under artillery, mortar, machine-gun or small-arms fire. The cool nerve of the Allied sappers at El Alamein was equal to anything seen in any theatre of the war.

On 23 October, Stumme commanded some 50,000 German and 54,000 Italian troops, compared to Montgomery’s 195,000 mainly Commonwealth soldiers. The Eighth Army had eighty-five infantry battalions compared to the Africa Korps’ seventy-one (of which thirty-one were German), as well as 1,451 anti-tank guns to Rommel’s 800, and 908 first-class field and medium artillery pieces to about 500 Axis, of which 370 Italian guns were temperamental Great War pieces, and not up to the coming task.19 If one strips out the British light tanks, German Panzer Mark IIs and the Italian tanks, which Rommel called ‘decrepit and barely fit for action’, the figures for effective medium tanks at El Alamein were 910 Allied to 234 Axis, a ratio of four to one.20 The disparity is striking, and a testament to Allied interdiction of Axis reinforcement attempts, as well as to the massive reinforcement of the Allied forces via the Gulf of Aden.

Although the morale of the Italians’ air force, armour, artillery and, especially, paratroopers was generally high, this was not true of their regular infantry, who made up the great majority of the 1.2 million Italians stationed on foreign soil in 1942. As had been seen earlier in the war, the Italians could fight bravely if properly officered, equipped, trained and fed, but this was rarely the case in the latter stages of the Desert War. Some Italians units, such as the small but all-volunteer Folgore (Lightning) paratrooper and Ariete armoured divisions, were as solid as any on the battlefield. Rommel said of the Ariete that ‘We always asked them to do more than they practically could, and they always did.’ Nonetheless, some Italian infantry formations could not stand prolonged bombardment before they began to consider surrendering. Lack of food was also a major problem for the Italians, and as a history of El Alamein records: ‘The only fresh meat was provided by the occasional camel that strayed into one of the Devil’s Gardens and either set off a mine or came close enough to be shot.’21 Moreover, Italian tanks were generally too light and mechanically unreliable, much of their artillery was wildly inaccurate at over 5 miles’ range and their tanks’ wireless sets barely functioned when in motion.22

‘We have a very daring and skilful opponent against us,’ Churchill controversially told the House of Commons of Rommel on 27 January 1942, ‘and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.’23 (Churchill had used his maiden speech in 1900 to praise the Boers as fighting men too.) The way that Rommel attempted to stiffen the morale of the Italian infantry was to ‘corset’ them close to crack German units, so for example the Italian Bologna Division would be stationed near to the elite German Ramcke paratroops, while the Italian Trento Division would be interspersed with the 164th (Saxon) Light Division. Much the same thing had been done by the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo, when he had placed British regiments among Belgian and Dutch units of more doubtful quality.

A vital aspect of the coming struggle was to be the air superiority that the Allies had by the time of Alam el Halfa established over the Luftwaffe, but which by the second battle of Alamein had almost turned into air supremacy. Montgomery attached Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham’s DAF headquarters to his own, and, although he gave him little credit in his writings later on, the two commands worked effectively together. The DAF could deploy 530 aircraft to the Luftwaffe’s 350, but it had an edge that the difference in numbers would not seem to justify, for during the battle the DAF flew 11,600 sorties against 3,100 by the Luftwaffe.24 By then the DAF consisted of nineteen British, nine South African, seven American and two Australian squadrons, including some supplied with Spitfires, which had begun to appear in Africa that March. By September 1942, the United States had also landed 1,500 aircraft in a theatre in which her ground forces were not yet engaged, and before Alamein the ratio of air reinforcement had been five to one in the Allies’ favour.25

The sheer productive power of the United States – awakened and infuriated by Pearl Harbor – was thus already beginning to tell. Between December 1941 and September 1942, the Anglo-American alliance sent 2,370 single-engined fighters to the Middle Eastern theatre, against a total German production of 1,340 in that same period (only 25 per cent of which could be sent there).26 Hitler was very soon to feel the folly of his declaration of war against America. ‘Anyone who has to fight, even with the most modern weapons,’ wrote Rommel, ‘against an enemy in complete control of the air, fights like a savage against modern European troops, under the same handicaps and with the same chances of success… We had to face the likelihood of the RAF shortly gaining absolute air superiority.’ The days of Messerschmitt Me-109s based in Libya dominating the skies, shooting down Tomahawks and Hurricane IIs with impunity, were over. Rommel appreciated that he had, in his own words, to ‘put our defences into such a form that British air superiority would have the least effect… We could no longer rest our defence on the motorised forces used in a mobile role… We had instead to try to resist the enemy in field positions.’27 For all Rommel’s loose nomenclature about the RAF rather than the DAF, and the ‘English’ rather than the Allies, the battle of El Alamein was not a British victory so much as a British Empire one (despite the American planes and Sherman tanks). As well as Major-General Douglas Wimberley’s 51st Highland Division, for example, Leese’s XXX Corps consisted – from the sea southwards – of Major-General Leslie ‘Ming the Merciless’ Morshead’s 9th Australian Division, Major-General Bernard Freyberg’s 2nd New Zealand Division, Major-General Dan Pienaar’s 1st South African Division and Major-General Francis Tuker’s 4th Indian Division. A better roll-call of Empire could hardly be imagined, missing Canadians only because 3,400 of them had been senselessly sacrificed at Dieppe two months earlier.

South of the Ruweisat Ridge, Horrocks commanded a more British line, including the north-countrymen of Major-General John ‘Crasher’ Nicholls’ 50th Division and Major-General Hector Hughes’ 44th (Home Counties) Division, as well as Major-General John Harding’s 7th Armoured Division, whose nickname the Desert Rats – because of the jerboa painted on the sides of their tanks – was gradually to extend in popular parlance to the whole Eighth Army. Yet there were also two important units entirely unconnected to Britain’s Commonwealth or Empire: the Free Greek Brigade held the Ruweisat Ridge itself and Brigadier-General Marie-Pierre Koenig’s Free French Brigade guarded the gap between the 44th Division and the Qattara Depression. With these forces fighting against Germans and Italians, Alamein was thus almost as cosmopolitan a battle as it was possible to have, and to characterize it as merely Britons versus Germans is unwarrantably to caricature what happened. Rommel always said, for example, that the New Zealanders were the finest troops in the Eighth Army.

According to Montgomery’s plan, it was the Commonwealth forces of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa who were, along with the 51st Highlanders, intended to break through the Axis lines in the first two days of fighting and open the gaps in the minefields through which Major-General Raymond Briggs’ 1st and Major-General Alec Gatehouse’s 10th Armoured Divisions of X Corps would flood. Montgomery’s Schwerpunkt was going to be not on the coastal road to the north nor down by the Qattara Depression in the south – as it had been in almost all previous engagements over the past two years – but instead in the centre of the battlefield. In this, as with his insistence on a decisive battle and his return to attritional warfare, Montgomery was to prove both original and far-sighted. As Michael Carver, who served under him in the Western Desert, would later write: ‘It may have been expensive and unromantic, but it made certain of victory, and the certainty of victory at that time was all-important. Eighth Army had the resources to stand such a battle, while the Panzerarmee had not, and Montgomery had the determination, will-power and ruthlessness to see such a battle through.’28

Nor can one belittle Montgomery’s success at Alamein by pointing out his two-to-one superiority over Rommel in terms of artillery and men, and four-to-one superiority in effective tanks. The established view in military thinking was still – as it had been since Napoleon’s day – that the attacker needed a three-to-one preponderance to be sure of victory. Moreover, as one of his officers, the military historian Peter Young, has pointed out: ‘If, for once, a British general managed to get his army across the start line with a numerical superiority over the enemy, this should be a matter for praise rather than complaint!’29

Montgomery, while learning the lessons of the Second World War on which he had been at the receiving end at Dunkirk, had also not forgotten those of the Great War. With what he called ‘100% binge’, Montgomery believed that a huge initial barrage and the attack of Leese’s corps could begin a process of what he called ‘crumbling’, whereby the Axis forces – particularly the Italian infantry – would be demoralized and collapse, especially once Lumsden’s tanks attacked them from the flanks and rear. British anti-tank guns and tanks pouring through the bridgehead would, he hoped, hold off the Panzers’ inevitable counter-attack wherever the breakthroughs occurred.30 (In writing military history – indeed history in general – it is impermissible to use the word ‘inevitable’, except when describing the Germans’ swift and aggressive counter-attacking of Allied successes.) Panzers on the move would prove a far easier target both for the DAF and for the British tanks and anti-tank gunners. Unlike earlier desert commanders, Montgomery was positively looking forward to the Axis response, or claimed to be, for morale’s sake. ‘Having thus beaten the guts out of the enemy,’ Montgomery told his divisional commanders, ‘the eventual fate of the Panzerarmee is certain. It will not be able to avoid destruction.’ Envisaging ‘a dogfight lasting about twelve days’, Montgomery predicted a crushing victory.31

The Eighth Army’s massive artillery bombardment opened up at 21.40 hours on Friday, 23 October 1942, accompanied by aerial attacks from Wellington and Halifax bombers. In all, some 882 guns, manned by around 6,000 artillerymen, took part, with the field guns averaging 102 rounds per gun per day. An estimated 1 million shells were fired by the Allies during the battle.32 In Cairo, Alexander cabled ‘Zip’ to a relieved and initially delighted Prime Minister in London. After twenty minutes of firing against Axis artillery, at 22.00 the target became the Axis front line, to soften it up for the infantry assault under a full moon. ‘The peaceful stars were shaken in their heavens when nearly a thousand guns flashed and roared simultaneously against us that night,’ recalled Second Lieutenant Heinz Werner Schmidt, who was serving in a reserve anti-tank battery. ‘The earth from the Qattara Depression to the Mediterranean quaked. Far back from the front line, men were jarred to their teeth.’33 The barrage could be heard in Alexandria, some 60 miles away. It continued for five hours, and then broke off at 03.00, only to be resumed at 07.00. Meanwhile sappers went forward to clear paths through the minefields for the infantry, marking them with white tape. The pipers played ‘Highland Laddie’ as the Highland and Commonwealth battalions tried to reach objectives along what was codenamed the Oxalic Line. By 08.00 Leese’s corps had succeeded in taking roughly half of them, but at the cost of nearly 2,500 casualties, mostly from mines and booby-traps. (The Axis certainly had no monopoly on ingenious booby-traps: the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Tunisia used to plant exploding mule droppings.)

The ‘creeping barrage’ had managed to keep Axis mortaring, sniping and machine-gunning to a minimum. Yet, potentially disastrously, Lumsden’s X Corps had largely failed to break through, and was generally not in a position to protect the infantry from counter-attack. Only the 8th Armoured Brigade made it to the Miteiriya Ridge, but the rest of the corps got fouled up in gargantuan traffic jams along the narrow pathways through the minefields. ‘Once a lane had been cleared, there was also the problem of congestion,’ records one history. ‘An overlooked mine which blew a track off could block a lane for hours and make a mockery of numerical superiority’ – and an inviting target for the Luftwaffe.34 An infuriated Montgomery remonstrated with Lumsden in person ‘in no uncertain voice’, threatening to relieve his divisional commanders, and possibly by implication Lumdsen himself. Feeling the full weight of Montgomery’s ire cannot have been pleasant, and Lumsden ordered fresh attacks to try to relieve the infantry, who by then had to face elements of the Folgore Division and Ramcke Brigade.

Yet Montgomery had not one lucky break but three when it came to the higher direction of the German side of the battle. Not only was Rommel away in Germany when the offensive began, but his efficient chief of staff Fritz Bayerlein was on leave, and the overweight Georg Stumme then died of a heart attack on the first day, whereupon the Panzer general Wilhelm von Thoma took over. It was not until just before midnight on Sunday, 25 October that the signal could be relayed to the Afrika Korps: ‘I have taken command of the army again. Rommel.’ (Many units did not in fact receive this encouraging signal, as the great opening barrage had cut a number of telephone wires.) Rommel nonetheless quickly deduced that the attacks in the south of the battlefield were merely diversionary, so he withdrew the 21st Panzer Division from there and sent it northwards towards Kidney Ridge. Such was the shortage of petrol that he had to be certain, because if Montgomery was bluffing the division might not even have had enough fuel to return. The sinking of two Italian oil-tankers, Proserpina and Louisiana, in Tobruk harbour by the DAF on 26 and 28 October, before they could unload their fuel, was to be a particular blow.

On 25 October Montgomery abandoned attempts to get both the 10th and 7th Armoured Divisions through the Axis lines, and instead ordered the 9th Australian Division to start ‘crumbling’ operations in the north. Meanwhile, the 1st Armoured Division was sent to the area of Kidney Ridge. That night the Australians were mainly successful, but the 1st Armoured made no progress. The next day saw heavy Axis attacks on Kidney Ridge, but without much success. The 7th Motor Brigade (which included the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade and the 2nd Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps) fought desperate actions to secure positions north and south of Kidney Ridge, jocularly codenamed Snipe and Woodcock, on 27 October. Heavy German shelling, much friendly fire and strong armoured counter-attacks by the 15th Panzer, 21st Panzer and Littorio Divisions failed to dislodge these units from those key positions during that day and night, and thirty-three Axis tanks, five self-propelled guns and other vehicles were destroyed on Snipe alone. Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Turner, who commanded the Rifle Brigade battalion there, won the Victoria Cross, mirroring his brother’s posthumous achievement at the battle of Loos in the Great War, while others in the battalion received the DSO, DCM, MC and seven Military Medals. One recent history of El Alamein regards the gallantry on Snipe as one of the turning points of the battle, because it convinced Rommel that Kidney Ridge was the true Schwerpunkt, whereas Montgomery had in fact already turned his attentions further north in his desire to find a place for his armour to punch through the Axis lines. The British commander also knew that the coastal road and railway line in the north composed both Rommel’s supply lines and his sole route of retreat.

Up in the north, the 9th Australian Division had already suffered more than a thousand casualties – only half of 51st Highland Division’s losses, but twice those of the entire X Corps – yet it had succeeded in establishing what in military parlance was called a ‘thumb’ across the railway line and towards the sea, and was hoping thereby to trap Theodor Count von Sponeck’s 90th Light Division and the 164th Saxon Division with their backs to the sea.35 It was a success that Montgomery wanted to capitalize upon, and to protect against which Rommel was forced to send badly stretched Panzer reinforcements from the Kidney Ridge area. This move was necessary, but it both used up precious petrol and exposed the German armour – the most vulnerable part of any tank was its roof – to DAF attack once it had been spotted by aerial reconnaissance. ‘No one can conceive the extent of our anxiety during this period,’ Rommel later wrote:

That night I hardly slept and by 03.00 hours [on 29 October] was pacing up and down turning over in my mind the likely course of the battle, and the decisions I might have to take. It seemed doubtful whether we could stand up much longer to attacks of the weight which the British were now making, and which they were in any case still able to increase. It was obvious to me that I dared not await the decisive breakthrough, but would have to pull out to the west before it came.36

Nonetheless, Rommel decided ‘to make one more attempt, by the tenacity and stubbornness of our defence, to persuade the enemy to call off his attack’. If it failed, he would order a general withdrawal to the town of Fuka, but he recognized that that would probably involve the loss of much of his non-motorized infantry, who were fighting at close quarters and had no means of escape. Meanwhile, Leese sent Royal Artillery 6-pounder anti-tank guns over to the Australians to try to help deal with the Panzers. Nothing could be afforded from the reserve, and no fewer than twenty-two of the thirty Valentine tanks that were also sent were destroyed with comparative ease. Sherman tanks, with 75mm guns in their turrets which were able to traverse 360 degrees, and Grant tanks might have made the difference, but they could not be spared.

Instead, Montgomery withdrew some of the heavy tanks from further south and ended the coastal thrust, bringing Operation Lightfoot to an end on 29 October. This caused immense consternation in London, where Anthony Eden persuaded Churchill that Montgomery was giving up the fight only halfway through. Calling Brooke out of a Chiefs of Staff meeting, the Prime Minister berated ‘your’ Montgomery for fighting ‘a half-hearted battle’, asking ‘Had we not got a single general who could even win one single battle?’ Brooke defended his protégé and was supported by the South African premier Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts in protecting the man on the spot against the Whitehall strategists, and a row broke out in which harsh words were said on both sides. Privately, however, Brooke admitted that he had:

my own doubts and my own anxieties as to the course of events, but these had to be kept entirely to myself. On returning to my office I paced up and down, suffering from a desperate feeling of loneliness… there was still just the possibility that I was wrong and that Monty was beat. The loneliness of those moments of anxiety, when there is no one one can turn to, have to be lived through to realize their intense bitterness.37

Far from being ‘beat’, the Eighth Army commander, ending Lightfoot and the coastal approach, on the night of 1 November launched Operation Supercharge, under the command of Freyberg. Montgomery withdrew one brigade from each of the 44th, 50th and 51st Divisions for the assault, to be directed to the south of Kidney Ridge, largely against the Italian infantry. Once they had made the initial breakthrough, it was hoped that the 1st Armoured Division would debouch through the gap with its 39 Grant, 113 Sherman and 119 Crusader tanks, cross the north–south Rahman Track and engage the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions to the west of it. The 15th Panzer Division was down to fifty-one tanks by this time and the 21st had only forty-four. By the time Supercharge took place, the Axis line was almost completely denuded of armoured and motorized reserves, with General Francesco Arena’s armoured Ariete Division and General Francesco La Ferla’s motorized Trieste Division now fully occupied against Leese’s XXX Corps. The breakthrough moment had finally come.

After a short preliminary bombardment from 01.05 on 2 November, Supercharge went into operation. The Durham Brigade of the 50th Infantry Division, the battalions of Seaforth and Cameron Highlanders and a battalion of Maoris from the 2nd New Zealand Division captured all their objectives by 06.15, punching a 4-mile-wide gap in the Axis line beyond Kidney Ridge and almost up to the Rahman Track. The 9th Armoured Brigade, comprising the 3rd Hussars, the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry and the Warwickshire Yeomanry, then poured through the gaps in the Axis line. When the commanding officer of the 3rd Hussars, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Peter Farquhar, had told Montgomery that Supercharge would be ‘suicide’, Montgomery did not disagree, saying, ‘If necessary, I’m prepared to accept 100% casualties in both personnel and tanks’ in order to break through. Farquhar, a sixth baronet who was to be wounded thrice in the war and win the DSO and bar, took these kamikaze orders with commendable sangfroid. He later recalled: ‘There was, of course, no more to be said.’38 Overall, however, Montgomery husbanded the lives of his men extremely carefully, indeed to the point that he is often criticized for over-caution. ‘Casualties are inevitable in war,’ he would say, ‘but unnecessary casualties are unforgivable.’39

Rommel’s movement of German motorized and armoured units north to deal with the Australians, while it did limit Morshead’s successes near the coast, also meant that the ‘corset’ system started to break down, leaving Supercharge with a superb opportunity in the Italian sector near Kidney Ridge. Of Rommel’s concern about losing the coastal road, Montgomery wrote in 1958, ‘He concentrated his Germans in the north to meet it, leaving the Italians to hold his southern flank. We then drove in a hard blow between the Germans and the Italians, with a good overlap on the Italian front.’40 Because he had the invaluable advantage of being able to read Rommel’s Enigma communications, Montgomery knew how short the Germans were of men, ammunition, food and above all fuel. When he put Rommel’s picture up in his caravan he wanted to be seen to be almost reading his opponent’s mind. In fact he was reading his mail. Rommel might have tried to ‘persuade the enemy to call off his attack’, but in reality that was never going to happen, whatever he hoped and Churchill and Eden feared. Otherwise Rommel fought the battle of El Alamein without mistakes, except insofar as he fought there at all. By the end of 2 November, despite spirited German counter-attacks and a thoroughgoing reorganization of new defensive positions, Rommel was persuaded by Thoma that air attacks, fuel shortages and the absence of reserves meant that withdrawal to Fuka was now unavoidable, and he prepared to give the order to retreat.

The bombardment had been going on, day and night, for ten days, and the shelling around an area near the Rahman Track codenamed Skinflint had been so intense that the ‘whole place’, in Carver’s recollection, ‘was knee-deep in dust. Nobody knew where anybody or anything was, where minefields started or ended.’ Shells created ‘a cloud of dust as dense as a smokescreen’ when they landed, and visibility could get down to as little as 50 yards.41 Of the 187 tanks still available to the Axis by then, all but thirty-two were Italian machines with calibres too small to face the Allies’ Shermans.

The 9th Armoured Brigade under Brigadier John Currie made good advances under the cover of darkness on 2 November – night-time tank attacks were rare, and as such came as a surprise – but, in the words of one history, these troops ‘were betrayed by the dawn. It came up behind them long before they were through the anti-tank guns, silhouetting their tanks as plainly as in a recognition manual.’42 Only nineteen out of the brigade’s ninety tanks survived intact, and 270 casualties were suffered, but it had destroyed thirty-five anti-tank guns along the Rahman Track, and once the 2nd Armoured Brigade joined the remnants of the 9th to take on the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, Africa’s largest tank battle commenced, around a hillock named Tel el Aqqaqir. If Thoma, who relocated his Kampfstaffel there to supervise it, had won this battle-within-a-battle, it is not inconceivable that the Axis line might have continued to hold, leaving Montgomery with very few arrows left in his quiver.

In a pattern that was to be repeated very often in the war from then on – and especially in Russia – the Germans actually destroyed more tanks than their opponents, but not enough for overall victory. By the end of the Aqqaqir battle of 2 November, there were only fifty viable Axis tanks, against more than 500 Allied ones, leaving Rommel no alternative but to order a general retreat so that he might, as he put it in a message that was intercepted by the GCCS at Bletchley Park, ‘extricate the remnants’ of his army. This was to start at 13.30 hours on 3 November.

Yet Hitler – in another development that was often to be repeated as the war progressed – issued an immediate Führerbefehl (Führer-order) stating:

It is with trusting confidence in your leadership and the courage of the German–Italian troops under your command that the German people and I are following the heroic struggle in Egypt. In the situation in which you find yourself there can be no other thought but to stand fast, yield not a yard of ground and throw every gun and every man into the battle. The utmost efforts are being made to send you the means to continue the fight. Your enemy, despite his superiority, must also be at the end of his strength. It will not be the first time in history that a strong will has triumphed over the bigger battalions. As to your troops, you can show them no other road than that to victory or death. Adolf Hitler43

Rommel received this unequivocal ‘Stand or die’ order with bemusement. ‘The Führer must be crazy,’ he told a junior Staff officer.44 Later he wrote that ‘This order demanded the impossible. Even the most devoted soldier can be killed by a bomb.’ Although the order was not officially rescinded until the 4th, in fact the Afrika Korps began a piecemeal withdrawal the previous night anyway. In Carver’s estimation, if there was any attempt to put the Führerbefehl into effect it ‘does not appear to have succeeded, even if it were seriously made’.45 Five days later, on 9 November, Rommel noted in a letter that ‘Courage which goes against military expediency is stupidity, or, if it is insisted upon by a commander, irresponsibility.’ He blamed ‘the custom at the Führer’s HQ [of subordinating] military interests to those of propaganda’.46 The irresponsibility of Hitler’s ‘Stand or die’ demands had first been spotted by Rundstedt at Rostov in November 1941, but was destined to become the dominant leitmotiv of the rest of the war, as suchFührerbefehlen were issued to commanders like confetti, preventing them from falling back, consolidating and adopting better defensible positions. Interestingly, however, Rommel was not reprimanded for ignoring the order. A darling of the Reich, recently raised to field marshal, his status meant that nothing more was heard of it. Only when Rommel was discovered to have shown disloyalty to Hitler politically, advocating the Führer’s arrest by the Army, was he forced to commit suicide, on 14 October 1944. His death was ascribed to earlier wounds, and he was given a state funeral.

Faced with being outflanked from the south by the 7th Armoured Division, and with large sections of his army – especially the Italian infantry – surrendering in droves, Rommel withdrew to Fuka on 4 November. That night, Montgomery entertained the captured General von Thoma to dinner in his tent, in a scene reminiscent of the wars of earlier centuries. After a ‘dogfight’ that had indeed lasted the twelve days that Montgomery had predicted, the Afrika Korps quitted the field with as much equipment as its fuel supplies could extricate. This took place in comparatively good order, although those without motorized transport, including 20,000 Italians and 10,000 Germans, that is 29 per cent of Rommel’s army, including nine generals, either surrendered on the field or were captured just behind it. In the desert, flight was not an option as on European battlefields; dying of thirst or starvation were the only alternatives to spending the rest of the war in captivity.

It has been argued that El Alamein need not have been fought at all, and that Rommel would have been forced to retreat once the Anglo-American landings began in North-West Africa the following month, and that ‘Instead of a set-piece attack on a strongly fortified position, Eighth Army would have been better engaged in organising and training for the rapid pursuit and destruction of the retreating Axis forces.’47 However, this does not take into account the British Commonwealth’s desperate need for an authentic and major morale-boosting land victory over the Germans, to regain their military self-respect after three years of defeat and evacuation, and to dispel the myth of Rommel’s invincibility. This El Alamein did. Yet it did more than just that; the Afrika Korps had been decisively defeated on the field of battle, the threat to Cairo ended and Rommel forced into headlong retreat.

In all, the Eighth Army suffered 13,560 casualties, or 8 per cent of its numbers, in the battle, against around 20,000 Axis killed or wounded, or 19 per cent.48 The losses were ‘by far the highest toll suffered by a British Army in the war so far’.49 They fell heavily on the Commonwealth: one-fifth of them were Australians, and of the 16,000 New Zealanders who fought there, 3,000 were killed and 5,000 wounded. Yet Rommel was forced to leave around 1,000 guns and 450 tanks on the battlefield, and a further 75 tanks were abandoned during the retreat. In Carver’s estimation, ‘The Afrika Korps cannot have had more than 20 tanks, if that, left when they withdrew from Mersa Matruh on 8 November.’ Malta was also now safe, at least once the Axis air bases at Martuba were overrun soon afterwards. Small wonder, then, that Churchill ordered the church bells of Britain to be rung out on Sunday, 15 November 1942 to celebrate the victory, the first time they had been heard since the invasion scares of thirty months earlier.

Montgomery’s relatively tardy and cautious follow-up to Alamein – he took nine days to retake Tobruk – has been much criticized, but he understandably did not want to overreach himself, especially against an adversary like Rommel. Heavy rain at Fuka after 5 November ended the 2nd New Zealand Division’s hopes of cutting off the Afrika Korps’ long retreat back to Tripoli. ‘Only the rain on 6 and 7 November saved them from complete annihilation,’ wrote Montgomery afterwards. ‘Four crack German divisions and eight Italian divisions had ceased to exist as effective fighting formations.’50 Although Montgomery had fifteen times more tanks than Rommel on 5 November, and the ratio was to oscillate between 10:1 and 13:1 for the rest of the year, he wanted to take no risks with his victory.51 ‘The doom of the Axis forces in Africa was certain,’ he wrote later, ‘provided we made no mistakes.’52

No fewer than 500 Allied tanks had been put out of action in the battle, although only 150 irreparably. The fact that Rommel did not make a serious stand again for three months, and that was hundreds of miles to the west at the Mareth Line, shows how crushing El Alamein had been for him. The British Empire might have won its first land battle of the war against Germany, but it was to be the last major battle fought as an overwhelmingly imperial force. For, on the day that Rommel left Mersa Matruh, thousands of miles to the west an Anglo-American force was landing in Morocco and Algeria, under the aegis of Operation Torch. From now on the Allies would fight the war under joint command, with the supreme Allied commander more often than not an American.

Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein should have provided a powerful inducement for the Vichy authorities in Africa to co-operate with the Allies during the invasions of Morocco and Algeria on Sunday, 8 November, codenamed Operation Torch. The landings represent the greatest amphibious operation since Xerxes crossed the Hellespont in 480 BC, outnumbering even the Gallipoli Expedition of 1915, which many feared it would emulate. The fighting nonetheless cost the French 3,000 casualties over three days, and the Allies 2,225. Small wonder that Torch’s commander, the American general Dwight D. Eisenhower, wrote: ‘I find myself getting absolutely furious with these Frogs.’53 Torch was undertaken because the British refused to re-enter the European continent in north-west France, from where they had been ignominiously expelled in June 1940, until the Wehrmacht had been significantly weakened on the Eastern Front by the Russians, Germany had been heavily bombed, the Middle East was safe and the battle of the Atlantic unequivocally won. General Marshall’s April 1942 plans for an early return to France – with either a nine-division assault codenamed Sledgehammer, or a forty-eight-division invasion codenamed Roundup – were both judged far too risky by General Brooke, since March 1942 the chairman of the British Chiefs of Staff as well as Chief of the Imperial General Staff. ‘The plans are fraught with the gravest dangers,’ he confided to his diary. ‘The prospects of success are small and dependent on a mass of unknowns, whilst the chances of disaster are great and dependent on a mass of well established military facts.’54

General George C. Marshall, a courtly Pennsylvanian, and General Sir Alan Brooke, a flinty Ulsterman, were the primary military drivers behind Allied grand strategy in the war, alongside Roosevelt and Churchill. They had a fundamentally different view of how the war should be won, with Marshall arguing for an early cross-Channel assault in force and Brooke preferring to see German forces diverted and defeated piecemeal in North Africa, Sicily and Italy before the clash in north-west France was attempted. The meetings of the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff saw the arguments for each option debated aggressively from 1942 to 1944, with stand-up rows occasionally developing. Nonetheless the Allies’ victory-by-committee approach was far superior to Hitler’s supreme-warlord approach, in that it allowed for rational discussion, relatively open and logical argument and, ultimately, democratic control imposed by elected leaders. Marshall and Brooke furthermore respected each other as gentlemen, even when profoundly disagreeing over grand strategy.

President Roosevelt saw the political importance of striking against the Germans somewhere on land in 1942, and preferably before the mid-term Congressional elections, in order to protect the Germany First policy from those American strategists who preferred to concentrate on the Pacific. On 25 July 1942, persuaded during a visit from Churchill to Roosevelt’s country house Hyde Park, and galvanized by the fall of Tobruk on 20 June, the President came down firmly in favour of Operation Torch, which Marshall had to accept and then implement, despite having severe reservations about its practicality.55 Marshall realized that a large-scale commitment to North Africa in late 1942 would effectively make an attack on France impossible in 1943. He resented this and was convinced that taking what he called ‘side shots’ in the Mediterranean had elongated the war, telling Brooke on more than one occasion that he considered the British had led the Americans down the garden path.56

It was nevertheless Marshall’s clear duty to undertake Torch, and he hoped that its sheer size might minimize the massive risks involved. No fewer than 300 warships and 400 other vessels would carry more than 105,000 troops – three-quarters of them American and one-quarter British – from the eastern seaboard of the United States and the south coast of Great Britain to nine landing places up to 900 miles apart in Africa. Some 72,000 troops would leave from Britain and a further 33,843, in Task Force 34 under the overall command of Lieutenant-General George S. Patton, would cross the Atlantic Ocean from Hampton Roads, Virginia, with all the dangers that that entailed. Right up to the last moment, Rear-Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt wanted to put off the sailing of Task Force 34 for a week because an ebb tide was forecast for the Moroccan beaches at dawn on 8 November, and he preferred the landing craft to ride in on a rising one. Only Patton’s force of personality ensured there was no delay from the agreed time.

George Smith Patton had been known to Americans ever since he had strapped the corpses of three bandits to his vehicle during the Punitive Expedition in Mexico in 1916. ‘Old Blood and Guts’ admitted to what he called ‘the white-hot joy of taking human life’, but he was prepared to risk his own too. ‘If we are not victorious,’ he told his men before one offensive in Tunisia, ‘let no one come back alive.’57 Other invocations to his troops included ‘Grab those pusillanimous sons-of-bitches by the nose and kick ’em in the balls,’ and ‘[Kill] lousy Hun bastards by the bushel.’ At one dinner he toasted his officers’ wives with the words: ‘My, what pretty widows you’re going to make.’58 With his ivory-handled revolvers, polished steel helmet, riding boots and sharply creased breeches, and flamboyant and occasionally obscene language, Patton was clearly a showman, but he was also a Southern aristocrat who was fluent in French. His namesake grandfather was killed leading a Confederate brigade in 1864, and Patton was imbued with the belief that he had been reincarnated several times (always as a warrior). In his last incarnation he can be credited with formulating the US Army’s first doctrine for armoured warfare, having commanded tanks in the Great War. Soon after Pearl Harbor, Patton was given command of the 1st US Armored Division, which despite being founded only in 1940 was nicknamed Old Ironsides. Every officer was expected to wear a necktie, every soldier to have his helmet buckled on tight. ‘I’m going to be an awful irritation to the military historians,’ General Patton once said, ‘because I do things by sixth sense. They won’t understand.’59

The supply for Patton’s attack during Torch was meticulous, right down to the 6 tons of women’s stockings and lingerie with which it was hoped that American commanders could bribe the local Arabs (and presumably also Vichy officials). Other essentials included 750,000 bottles of mosquito repellent, $100,000 in gold (to be signed for by Patton himself), 5 pounds of rat poison per company, 7,000 tons of coal, 3,000 vehicles, no fewer than 60 tons of maps and the new 2.36-inch M9 anti-tank rocket launcher (the bazooka). There were also 1,000 Purple Heart medals sent out in a secret crate, to be awarded to those wounded in action.60 They would soon need more.

Overall control of Torch was exercised by (Acting) General Dwight David Eisenhower from the 30 miles of tunnels underneath the Rock of Gibraltar. ‘Ike’, as he was universally known, would jog the half-mile from the tunnel entrance to his bunker headquarters, and he had taken only one day’s leave in the previous eleven months, which he had spent at the Army shooting range at Bisley in Surrey. So far Eisenhower had not seen a shot fired in anger during his entire military service, although later in the war he did fire at a rat in the bathroom at his Italian headquarters, missing it the first time but wounding it the second.61 He nonetheless won the respect of Patton and Montgomery, although the former somewhat jealously noted in his diary that ‘DD’ stood for ‘Divine Destiny’, and the latter complained ceaselessly behind Eisenhower’s back.

At times it must indeed have seemed like divine destiny that the third son of a failed Midwestern merchant, who had chosen a military career only because it afforded him a free education, who had never commanded so much as a platoon in combat, who had spent sixteen years as a major, and who thirty months before had been a mere lieutenant-colonel, could be placed in overall command of the largest amphibious operation of the past two millennia.62 Yet Eisenhower’s time in the Operations Division of the US War Department gave him a fine strategic sense, his mentor General George Marshall’s stalwart support for him in Washington gave him political power, and his own charm and growing charisma gave him the ability to referee the increasingly bitter contests between the prima-donna generals who were to dominate the next stages of the western war, primarily Montgomery, Patton, Omar Bradley and Mark Clark. Squabbling schoolgirls could hardly have been as petty and bitchy as these senior Allied commanders. (Harold Alexander and William Slim were men of different temperaments, while Douglas MacArthur was 5,000 miles away.) One of Patton’s biographers observes that he was ‘obsessed with beating the British on the battlefield, both to satisfy his personal vanity and to demonstrate that the American soldier was second to none’.63 Yet Patton was hardly any less hard on American rivals such as Mark Clark, and he recorded in his diary in September 1942: ‘He seems to me more preoccupied with bettering his own future than with winning the war.’64 The only consolation is that the German and Russian generals seem to have been just as vain, ambitious, backbiting and political as the British and American ones. The pretence of many generals to be bluff soldiers just doing their duty without regard to fame or promotion was for the most part just that.

Despite all the preparations at Gibraltar and elsewhere, and a need-to-know list numbering 800, somehow Torch achieved operational surprise. Both Vichy and the Abwehr assumed that such an attack was being considered, and the Italians even correctly predicted where it would land, but it was not spotted beforehand.65 Task Force 34 was lucky that a U-boat wolf-pack off the Moroccan coast had moved off to attack a British convoy sailing from Sierra Leone, although a total of twelve merchant ships were not.

In all there were nine Torch landings at three ports in Africa, which met differing levels of resistance from the Vichy French forces. Those at Casablanca were unopposed on the beaches, which was fortunate because they were the riskiest in terms of high surf and heavy tides. Nevertheless immediately afterwards they met the fiercest resistance of all three. Meanwhile, Major-General Lloyd R. Fredendall’s force attacked Oran over a 50-mile front, and met only ‘hesitant and uncertain’ resistance.66 The briefest resistance of the three was faced by Major-General Charles W. Ryder’s force at Algiers – the capital of the French Empire in North Africa – which attacked over a 25-mile front and suffered few casualties. The French Navy tended to be far more aggressive than the Army, recalling with undimmed fury the sinking of its fleet at Oran by the Royal Navy in July 1940. Yet its attempts at serious resistance collapsed after three days, once the sheer scale of the Allied offensive was revealed, especially at sea and in the air. Although Marshal Pétain issued orders for continued resistance against the Allies, the commander of all Vichy forces in Africa, Admiral Jean-Louis Darlan, whose great-grandfather had died at the hands of the British at the battle of Trafalgar and who Churchill said was ‘a bad man with a narrow outlook and a shifty eye’, nonetheless ordered a ceasefire on 10 November, just before Patton was about to storm Casablanca.67 Pétain’s actions were in part actuated by the knowledge that the Germans still had 1.5 million French soldiers in their POW camps. He did not save Vichy France, however, because the Germans invaded it that month, and soon afterwards Hitler congratulated Rundstedt, saying that he ‘took timely, improvised counter-measures to ensure the integrity and sovereignty of the Reich in face of French armed forces that had broken their word’.68 It seems that the French response to Torch satisfied neither the Allies nor the Axis. (As more Frenchmen bore arms for the Axis than for the Allies during the Second World War, it is unsurprising that there is still no official French history of the period.) 69

By the morning of 11 November, Casablanca, Oran and Algiers were all in Allied hands. The Americans fronted the operation both because they provided larger numbers and because the French were thought to hate the British more, so each British soldier sewed the Stars and Stripes on to his sleeve. ‘As long as it saves lives,’ said a British officer, ‘we don’t care if we wear the bloody Chinese flag.’70 Even after the success of Torch there continued to be gripes in Whitehall about various aspects of Eisenhower’s command – such as the fact that after its move from Gibraltar his headquarters in Algiers, which he originally envisaged numbering about 150 officers, eventually ballooned to 16,000 – but his victory in Africa put him in pole position for future supreme commanderships as they arose, assuming they were not given to either Brooke or Marshall.

The French Admiral Jean Laborde’s decision to scuttle three battleships, seven cruisers, twenty-nine destroyers, sixteen submarines and an aircraft carrier in Toulon on 27 November, rather than sail to Algiers, came as a serious blow to the Allies, as did the speed of the German response to Operation Torch. Two thousand troops were landed at Tunis as early as 9 November, and it soon became clear that Hitler intended to contest North Africa despite Rommel’s defeat 1,000 miles to the east. In retrospect it would have been better had Eisenhower stuck to his original plans for landings deep inside the Mediterranean as far east as Bône on the Tunisian border, even though it was out of reach of air cover from Gibraltar. Marshall feared that this might over-extend the American forces, however, and invite retaliation from the Luftwaffe in Sicily, or even a German counter-attack via Spain. Roosevelt therefore told Churchill on 30 August that he wanted to ‘emphasize that under any circumstances one of our landings must be on the Atlantic’.71 This meant that one-third of the task force would land 1,000 miles west of Tunis, the German capital in Africa and thus the ultimate objective, just in case the other two-thirds were sunk on their way to the Mediterranean or repulsed once ashore. ‘Caution prevailed and audacity stole away,’ rightly concludes a history of the campaign.72 Although the commander of the British First Army, Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson, was to reach Bône by land by 12 November, thereafter the winter rains set in and he found himself at the end of a long supply line fighting on too wide a front – at 50 miles – to be able to seize Tunis.73 Some units of the First Army got to within 15 miles of Tunis in early December, and 20 miles from Bizerta, but the Germans forced Anderson back with over a thousand casualties and the loss of seventy tanks. It was to take another six months for Tunis to fall.

Yet for two reasons it turned out to be fortunate for the Allies that the Germans in Africa did not collapse overnight in late 1942, and Eisenhower’s order to Anderson to give up the drive on Tunis proved correct, however much consternation it created in the British High Command at the time about the Supreme Commander’s fitness for the post. The first was that when they landed in Africa, as the American historian Rick Atkinson states, the soldiers of the US Army ‘were fine men, but not yet a good army’. To defeat the Germans in north-west France they would need to be both, and the campaign in North Africa proved the best possible training ground for this. As Patton admitted over his capture of Casablanca, there would have been ‘no victory to celebrate if his forces had been facing battle-hardened German defenders’.74 The second reason was that Hitler’s decision to continue to pour reinforcements into North Africa meant that the number of Axis troops captured – or ‘bagged’ in the British parlance of the day – was far higher than if he had ordered a withdrawal to Sicily immediately after Torch. Hitler actually sent far more men into Africa after Torch than Rommel had commanded in his initial struggle against Montgomery. In the campaigning after Torch, 8,500 Germans died, against around 10,000 Americans and 17,000 British killed, wounded and missing. Yet it was the 166,000 German and 64,000 Italian prisoners taken in Tunisia that puts that victory on a scale comparable with Stalingrad itself, a comparison that Goebbels himself privately made. And it was won at a fraction of the cost.

At a War Cabinet meeting on 16 November, Churchill said that Eisenhower had given a ‘convincing’ account of the political situation with regard to the French in North Africa, where after all they still had four divisions in Morocco, three in Algeria and one in Tunisia. Eisenhower’s negotiations with Admiral Darlan had secured the ceasefire, at the price of establishing the recently pro-German Anglophobe in power in Algiers. Churchill described Darlan as a ‘contemptible figure’, pointing out that ‘Whilst the French Navy was fighting, Darlan was negotiating.’ Yet Churchill equally despised Darlan’s rival, General Henri Giraud, who, he said: ‘1) signed a letter to Pétain saying he would behave, 2) then manoeuvred to get power for himself, 3) now he’s accepted a commission from Eisenhower to fight.’75 The discussion then moved on to American policy towards Darlan, which Eden said would outrage British public opinion; Churchill pointed out that Eisenhower was ‘not our Commander-in-Chief’ but added that the British ‘Can’t afford to upset Eisenhower just now… Eisenhower is our friend – grand fellow – don’t want to get across him.’ The Foreign Secretary said that nonetheless Washington should be told ‘fairly soon’ that the Darlan position should not be stabilized, and that ‘When [we] get [to] Tunis [we] ought to get rid of Darlan.’ He did not specify whether he meant this in a political or a physical sense.

The assassination of Admiral Darlan by a young French patriot in Algiers on Christmas Day 1942 threw the already volatile political situation into turmoil, but it helped to make possible a public reconciliation between the (British-backed) Free French leader Charles de Gaulle and the (American-backed) Giraud. SIS involvement in the assassination has long been suspected, but never substantiated, although Lawrence Burgis’ verbatim notes of what Anthony Eden said at the War Cabinet meeting only six weeks before can only further encourage speculation. The cordial mutual loathing of de Gaulle and Giraud did not prevent them from shaking hands (albeit reluctantly) at a conference that was held in January 1943 between the British and American High Commands at Casablanca. It was there that Roosevelt announced that the Allies would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender from the Axis, a decision that was agreed beforehand by the American Joint Chiefs of Staff and by the British War Cabinet. Although the President has been criticized for promulgating this position, as it was thought to strengthen the Nazis’ commitment to fight on to the death, it had the effect of calming Soviet fears that the Western Allies might make a separate peace with Germany. It was also at Casablanca that Roosevelt and Churchill conferred on where to attack once the Germans were expelled from Africa. After much tough negotiation, it was concluded that the Germans would have been able to remove their troops from Corsica or Sardinia, which were anyway further from the Allies’ African bases. So Sicily was chosen as the most direct route. Churchill had observed by 11 February that Hitler had a possibly fatal strategic blind spot, in that he was psychologically incapable of giving up ground once it had been won. ‘It is, indeed, quite remarkable’, he told the House of Commons that day,

that the Germans should have shown themselves ready to run the risk and pay the price required of them by their struggle to hold the Tunisian tip. While I always hesitate to say anything which might afterwards look like over-confidence, I cannot resist the remark that one seems to discern in this policy the touch of the master hand, the same master hand that planned the attack on Stalingrad, and that has brought upon the German armies the greatest disaster they have ever suffered in all their military history.76


‘During the last weeks of January 1943,’ records a history of Torch, ‘Rommel was shepherded warily towards the Tunisian frontier by Montgomery’s forces.’77 Driven across that border early in February, the Afrika Korps prepared to make a stand at the Mareth Line, its first major attempt to halt Montgomery since El Alamein. As these units dug in, however, Rommel flew westwards to perform one of his stunning counter-attacks, in a series of five engagements collectively known as the battle of the Kasserine Pass. This struggle, between Rommel’s Afrika Korps and Major-General Fredendall’s II Corps through the Western Dorsal mountain range in Tunisia between 14 and 22 February, perfectly illustrates the formidable and apparently ubiquitous German capacity for counter-attack, and illustrates why Marshall’s plan for an early attack on north-west France was probably impracticable.

The initial defence of the pass had to be carried out by the US 19th Combat Engineer Battalion, a construction unit that had not completed rifle training before being shipped overseas, and only one member of which had seen active service before, as well as an infantry battalion from the 1st Division and a four-gun French battery, barely 2,000 men all told.78 ‘Machine guns were badly sited, foxholes were too shallow, and barbed wire remained mostly on the spools. Nearly every man had entrenched on the floor of the pass, rather than the adjacent heights.’79 Anti-tank mines had been dumped rather than buried and there were not enough sandbags or entrenching tools. This was no way to send green GIs into battle, especially against German veterans who had fought in Poland, France and Russia, and were now armed with the six-barrelled 75-pound high explosive Nebelwerfer (‘fog-throwing’) mortar.

Major-General Orlando Ward’s 1st Armored Division was split into small units, and an Allied counter-attack was ambushed, with ‘appalling’ ground-to-air liaison and ‘lamentable’ co-operation between US armour, artillery and infantry, which led to more than 6,000 Allied casualties out of the 30,000 engaged, against 989 German casualties (of whom only 201 were killed), and 535 Italians captured. Fredendall’s corps alone lost 183 tanks, 104 half-tracks, 200 guns and 500 trucks and jeeps.80 Although Rommel’s counter-attack finally petered out on the road to Thala called Highway 17, it was not before he had almost broken through to the straight roads and flat country which led to the Le Kef supply depots only 40 miles away. ‘I felt strategic fear,’ the highly competent commander of the French forces in the region, General Alphonse Juin, later admitted, ‘for if Rommel broke through, all of North Africa was doomed.’81 This included more than a touch of Gallic hyperbole: the 10th Panzer Division’s fifty tanks, thirty guns and 2,500 infantry were not about to thrust the Allies all the way back to Casablanca, but they could possibly have turned the tide in Tunisia. Instructed therefore to hold the town ‘at all costs’, Brigadier Charles Dunphie of the British 26th Armoured Brigade ordered ‘every cook, driver and batman in Thala to the [front] line’.82 A tank fight developed in the dark of night at 20 yards’ range, with Dunphie losing twenty-nine of his fifty tanks before midnight. The arrival at 08.00 hours the next day of Brigadier-General Stafford Le Roy Irwin of the US 9th Infantry Division with, as one historian has put it, ‘2,200 men, 48 guns and a killer’s heart’, was critical in persuading Rommel not to press on further that morning, and instead an intensive artillery duel developed through the day.83

With four days’ rations and only enough fuel to drive 200 miles, and intelligence reports of the reinforcement of Thala, Rommel appeared ‘depressed’ to Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who as commander-in-chief south had overall responsibility for the Mediterranean Basin and who visited Kasserine to confer with him. ‘Rommel was physically worn out and psychologically fatigued,’ thought Kesselring, noting that ‘he had undoubtedly turned into a tired old man’. In the event, the outskirts of Thala was the furthest the Axis were ever to get in North-West Africa, and on the night of Monday, 22 February 1943 the Afrika Korps turned back, with the 21st Panzer Division acting as rearguard. It took three days for the Americans and British to reach the pass, and to organize Italian POW burial parties to bury the many corpses found there.

Fredendall had been forced back 85 miles in seven days, and Eisenhower’s amanuensis Harry Butcher noted that his ‘proud and cocky’ countrymen ‘today stand humiliated by one of the greatest defeats in our history’.84 The blame for Kasserine must be shared by Anderson, Eisenhower and Fredendall, and the last was swiftly replaced by Patton, but the German assault had nonetheless petered out, leaving the Desert Fox exhausted and blown. Co-operation between the British, French and Americans had been dire, at least until Eisenhower’s deputy Harold Alexander arrived the next month to take over command of the 18th Army Group, comprising the British First and Eighth Armies, the French XIX Corps and the US II Corps. (When Patton arrived to take up command of II Corps, General Omar Bradley later recalled the ‘procession of armoured cars and half-tracks [that] wheeled into the dingy square opposite the schoolhouse headquarters at Djebel Kouif on the late morning of 7 March. In the lead car Patton stood like a charioteer. He was scowling into the wind and his jaw strained against the web strap of a two-starred general.’) 85

The defeat at the Kasserine Pass – and the humiliating sight of 4,026 Allied POWs being marched from the Colosseum through Rome – ended any mood of over-confidence, and reminded each component of the Western alliance of the importance of close co-operation. ‘Our people from the very highest to the very lowest have learned that this is not a child’s game,’ Eisenhower reported to Marshall on 24 February. Yet it must be remembered that the Kasserine Pass was recaptured only days after the defeat. Despite having fallen back more than 1,000 miles, Rommel was still not getting the supplies he needed. He estimated that he required 140,000 tons of supplies a month to sustain him, and by early 1943 was receiving only one-quarter of that. Furthermore, almost every request to Kesselring in Rome was – unbeknown to him – landing on Eisenhower’s desk via Ultra, often within six hours of transmission.

By 17 March Patton was ready to advance, and he delivered this message to his troops:

Fortunately for our fame as soldiers, our enemy is worthy of us. The German is a war-trained veteran – confident, brave and ruthless. We are brave. We are better equipped, better fed, and in the place of his blood-glutted Woten, we have with us the God of our Fathers, Known of Old… If we die killing, well and good, but if we fight hard enough, viciously enough, we will kill and live. Live to return to our family and our girl as conquering heroes – men of Mars.86

While Patton attacked Rommel’s rear – and with fine covering artillery support defeated the veteran German 10th Panzer Division at El Guettar – the Eighth Army attacked the Mareth Line on 20 March, but got bogged down in the minefield. Montgomery nonetheless took the port of Sfax shortly afterwards. The nutcracker effect of Patton and Montgomery on each side of Rommel was one that was to lead to a ludicrous competitiveness – culminating in outright enmity – between the two men. ‘God damn all British and all so-called Americans who have their legs pulled by them,’ Patton wrote in his diary. ‘I would rather be commanded by an Arab. I think less than nothing of Arabs.’87 Montgomery’s vanity has already been noted, but this is what Patton wrote in his diary before sailing on Torch: ‘When I think of the greatness of my job and realise that I am what I am, I am amazed, but on reflection, who is as good as I am? I know of no one.’88 Yet there was a sentimental side to the bruiser too: Patton wept at his ADC’s funeral and put flowers on his grave before leaving the North African theatre.

The final part of the campaign from March 1943 saw Mark Clark’s II Corps – Patton had passed on the command in order to plan for the invasion of Sicily – attacking the northern sector of the Axis defensive position, and some particularly tough fighting by the US 34th Division for a defensive position called Hill 609. Only twenty months earlier, that division had been composed merely of National Guard units from Iowa and Minnesota. Anderson’s First Army and Montgomery’s Eighth Army also played crucial roles, which were reallocated by Alexander to ensure that the British and Americans jointly took the glory for expelling the Axis from Africa.

Constantly refusing Rommel’s reasonable and strategically sound requests to extricate his forces from Africa, Hitler proceeded in early 1943 to make precisely the same mistake that he had at Stalingrad in late 1942, reinforcing defeat and issuing ‘Stand or die’ orders that amounted to demands for suicidal resistance for no appreciable gain. Yet Bradley took Bizerta on 7 May, the same day that the British finally entered Tunis. The British suffered heavily in the Tunisian campaign: of the 70,000 Allied casualties in Tunisia, more than half were British and, of those, two-thirds were suffered by the First Army.89 The Eighth Army has taken much of the glory and the attention of history, but the First Army deserves recognition too.

For there was plenty of glory to be shared by the end of the campaign. Although an ill Rommel was himself evacuated from Tunis back to Germany on 9 March, his successor General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim was captured on 13 May, along with no fewer than 230,000 other POWs, 200 tanks and 1,200 guns. ‘The Tunisian campaign is over,’ Alexander cabled Churchill. ‘We are masters of the North African shore.’ Six days later Churchill chose the opportunity of his speech to the US Congress to underline the point about ‘the military intuition of Corporal Hitler’ that he had made in London back in February. To be an object of fear and hatred was perfectly acceptable to Hitler, but Churchill wanted to transform him into one of derision and mirth. The master of parliamentary ridicule had spotted a way of mocking ‘Corporal Hitler’, as he increasingly took to calling him, and he unerringly grasped it. ‘We may notice’, he said of German strategy in Africa, ‘the touch of the master hand. The same insensate obstinacy which condemned Field Marshal von [sic] Paulus and his army to destruction at Stalingrad has brought this new catastrophe upon our enemies in Tunisia.’90

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!