30 August – 4 September 1942

The five-day battle for the desert ridge at Alam Halfa has always been overshadowed by the greater victory secured at El Alamein two months later, yet it was, as one German field marshal later recalled, ‘the turning point in the desert war’.

British Commonwealth and Axis forces had battered each other back and forth across North Africa since 1940, but in 1942 the tide turned suddenly in favour of the combined German–Italian force commanded by Erwin Rommel, whose armies were now poised on the Egyptian frontier. One more defeat for the Allies and Egypt, the Suez Canal, even the seizure of the oil of the Middle East might be within Rommel’s grasp. Hurried efforts were made by the British to use deception to exaggerate their strength in Egypt, but the real deceit was the defensive strength of the British Commonwealth position holding the ridge. Rommel expected another walkover but fell into a well-prepared trap.

This famous shot of Bernard Law Montgomery, commander of the British 8th Army, shows him observing the action from the turret of a tank. At the Battle of Alam Halfa he succeeded in deceiving the astute General Rommel about his battle deployment.

By August 1942, the British were making every effort to prevent the Axis enemy from capitalizing on the defeat of British Commonwealth forces in June, when Rommel had seized Tobruk in Libya and had raced to the Egyptian frontier. A deception operation codenamed ‘Sentinel’ was set up to introduce dummy gun positions into the Allied front line but time was against it. Another operation involved moving vehicles and dummy installations to simulate two whole divisions, one in defence of Cairo and another in front of the port of Alexandria. False information was leaked to the enemy to support the idea that there were 30,000 additional troops in reserve. What Rommel did not know was that the British could read his encrypted Enigma messages – Ultra intelligence – and this deception proved crucial because it allowed the new commander of the British 8th Army, General Bernard Montgomery, to eavesdrop regularly on Axis plans.

Montgomery knew that he had to prevent any further disaster and was cautious in his approach. While preparing a major counter-offensive, he had to be able to absorb any stroke by the enemy. When Ultra revealed Rommel’s intention to strike by the end of August, before American assistance to the British became too strong, it also revealed that Rommel was going to undertake his attack desperately short of fuel.

An intensified and successful effort was made to sink or bomb all the Axis vessels trying to bring oil to North Africa, and the fuel shortage limited what Rommel could do in his renewed offensive. For his part, Rommel prepared a predictable operation, launching spoiling attacks against the main Allied line while he concentrated most of his armour on a southern axis for a surprise attack that would allow his forces to get behind the British lines and destroy them from the rear.

Speed was of the essence, as it had always been in Blitzkrieg warfare. Though he did not know it, the tank balance slightly favoured him. There were 234 German and 281 Italian tanks to 478 British, which were mostly older and less well-armed models. Only in the air was he outnumbered, a situation made worse by the poor supply of aviation fuel and problems of maintaining aircraft for combat in the desert.

Knowing his enemy’s plans in advance certainly made Montgomery’s task easier. He strengthened the deep belt of mines on his southern front and dug in his tanks and anti-tank guns along the Alam Halfa Ridge, a shallow hill that dominated the whole line. Rather than be lured onto the desert where German tanks and the feared 88-millimetre anti-tank gun would destroy Montgomery’s weaker vehicles, he opted for a plan to lure Rommel onto his guns, a case, as he famously said, of ‘dog eat rabbit’. This was not what Rommel expected and the deception, made necessary by experience of the desert war, proved decisive. On the night of 30–31 August, Axis armour rolled forward towards Montgomery’s southern flank. Rommel realized at once that the minefields were a much more complex barrier than had been thought. Suddenly flares burst in the air above his immobilized tanks and vehicles and tons of bombs were dropped accurately by the aircraft of the Desert Air Force. Co-operation between the Allied army and air force was critical to Montgomery’s success. A relentless barrage from the air was kept up throughout the following three days while the German air force, suffering from fuel shortages and with its bases subjected to regular bombing, lost control of the skies on the first day.

When Rommel’s army finally emerged from among the mines, the Germans were forced to wait for the Italian armour, still stuck in the minefield, to catch up. Further air attacks killed a number of senior German commanders, leaving the force decapitated at a critical moment. Rommel hesitated, but the lack of surprise and the loss of fuel, eaten up in the delays during the night, meant that his tanks could not press on east to surround the British Commonwealth line, since many would have been forced to come to a halt – sitting ducks for Allied artillery. At lunchtime Rommel changed tactic. He directed his panzer divisions to attack the Alam Halfa Ridge, hoping to lure out British armour so it could be destroyed. Instead his armour and vehicles came under withering tank, artillery and anti-tank fire and a ceaseless pounding from the air. When a German breakthrough seemed possible, Montgomery moved in the Royal Scots Greys from the reserve, and with the 1st Rifle Brigade they halted and turned back the German assault.

Rommel was nonplussed by British tactics but aware that he had little room left for manoeuvre. On 1 September, the 15th Panzer Division moved forward to assault the ridge again, but with the same result. Trapped between Montgomery’s strengthening forces to the north and east, and with the impassable Qatarra Depression to his south, he was compelled to order a withdrawal. The sensible decision by Montgomery to hold a firm defensive line rather than run risks was confirmed when he released the New Zealand Division to try to drive the Germans further back on 3 September, only for the offensive to result in a high proportion of the casualties suffered during the battle – 1,140 out of a total of 1,750. Axis losses were not as great as might have been expected from the aerial pounding – 2,910 casualties and tank losses estimated at between 52 and 67 tanks – but hundreds of other vehicles were lost and the Axis forces were subjected to a demoralizing level of bombardment that left many dazed and disoriented and Rommel himself close to physical collapse. It was the turning point of the desert war, and no-one was more surprised than Rommel. An enemy he had constantly underrated, led by a commander whose caution the Germans misinterpreted, was not only not surprised by his attack, but had surprises in store for him. When it came to the more famous Battle of El Alamein two months later, Montgomery’s use of deception to mask his intentions sprang one more, decisive, surprise.