On 29 June 1942, Rommel started a drive from Mersa Matruh that brought him to El Alamein. Many of his soldiers were worn down by two years of constant strain and combat. And yet on 15th, 22nd and 27th July, the Brescia, Trieste and Trento succeeded in pinning the 2nd New Zealand, 5th Indian, 9th Australian and 50th British Divisions between the Italian strong points and German armor and brought another series of disastrous defeats for the British commanders.
Under a Fading Moon
Following the British defeat at Mersa Matruh, the British Eighth Army under General Claude Auchinleck (Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command), who had succeeded General Neil Ritchie as Eighth Army Commander, withdrew to the vicinity of El Alamein, about 120 miles to the east. Unlike Mersa Matruh, the El Alamein positions could not be outflanked. The northern end rested on the sea, the southern end on the quagmire of the Qattara Depression. The 1st South African Division occupied the northern sector, the 18th Indian Brigade held the central sector and the 2nd New Zealand Division deployed in the southern sector. Auchinleck’s was to “hit the Italians whenever possible in view of their low morale.”
On the Axis side, Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel had the Afrika Korps, which consisted of 15th, 21st Panzer and 90th Light Divisions, various armored reconnaissance formations, plus the Italian Army. This consisted of Xth, XXth and XXIst
Corps, containing the Ariete, Littorio Armored and Trieste Motorized Divisions, plus four infantry divisions, the Pavia, Trento, Bologna and Brescia, bolstered by Bersaglieri special shock troops. Rommel planned for the 90th Light to pin down and encircle the South Africans in the north, with the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions striking the 2nd New Zealand Division in the rear.
The attack began on 1st July 1942 but the whole German advance found their path fiercely contested by the Indians and South Africans. The 18th Indian Brigade fought tenaciously, destroying eighteen German tanks and stopped the 21st Panzer Division.
To the north, the 90th Light Division encountered heavy artillery fire from the South African 1st Division and the were overwhelmed and scattered. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel now pushed his personal battle group of about 400 men on to the north, determined to get things going again at top speed. One historian wrote that “Rommel rushed up with the Kampfstaffel and rallied the division, but not even he could get it moving again.”
On 2nd and again on 3rd July the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions could only muster 26 serviceable tanks but despite this, they resumed the advance and knocked out 39 British tanks, before they were driven back by the British 1st Armored Division. The Ariete Armored and Trieste Motorized Divisions were now instructed to attack south. The authors of Rommel’s North Africa Campaign describe the advance as follows:
“The Ariete, which had six or eight tanks and 1,000 men, advanced south during the night while the Trieste was ordered to cover her flank, but, instead remained in the same place due to the disorganization caused by enemy air attacks.”
The New Zealand 19th Battalion advanced rapidly and engaged the Italian battle group, and the Ariete disengaged with the loss of 531 men and several artillery batteries. The New Zealand Official History exaggerated the enemy material losses and described the Italian setback setback as “an outstanding episode in the Dominion’s military history” and comments: “It seriously disconcerted both Germans and Italians and made the latter more fearful in subsequent conflicts with the New Zealanders.”
However, the advance of the New Zealand 21st and 22nd Battalions was met by heavy fire from the Brescia and the New Zealanders and neither of the two battalions was able to fully press home their attacks.