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First Battle of El Alamein

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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

Bersaglieri in Action

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.

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David Aldea is the co-author of 5th Infantry Brigade in the Falklands (Leo Cooper, 2003) and has written numerous articles, including “Blood and Mud at Goose Green” (Military History Magazine, April 2002). He has also written "The Battle of Mersa Matruh" and "First Battle of Alamein" for Comando Supremo: Italy at War.
David Aldea
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Comments

  1. 1
    Stephen Wood says:

    My fathers brother, Jules Joseph Wood was killed action during the first N.Z Advance at El Alamein on July 14 1942. He was 26. I found this article interesting and informative, the detail of events brought a sad and clear picture of that series of battles, confirming in my mind what waste of lives these mad wars have been . It’s now almost seventy years later and still was exist, still we humans go on killing our youngest and bravest men. We must surely soon rise up against the evil politicians and power mongers of this world and cease the reckless wasteful way they condemn innocent men to short lives and butyl endings. We have the capacity to stop them now, the mad Bin ladens, Gadaffis,, et al. Use your knowledge of past wars and the destruction they brought to influence all world leaders to move hard and fast against the tyrants and despots who cause the deaths of innocents and break the backs of the companies who manufacture any kind of weapon of destruction. Too few people control too many still. The world has wealth enough for all 6 billion of us. The fact that we cannot feed some, cannot stop wars and cannot stand up against those who we trust to lead us, cannot be ignored any longer. The uprisings in the middle east are hopefully the beginning of the end of those dictatorships. Let’s continue to educate the people of the world who are most at risk. Let us move towards civility and leave material gain behind. So very few ever benefited from it, so very few ever will. Yet so many needlessly die for it. Oil, minerals and the wealth they bring to a very few have been the cause of too many young lives lost too soon. And religious beliefs too, have brought nothing but misery to billions and power and wealth to just those a few. When will people realize they a all fairy tales, nonsensical drivel kept alive by power mongers to control the poor and the ignorant who are human too and deserve to lives of freedom and
    joy, unhindered by megalomaniacs. Stop making games of war for children, they have lives to live and should be taught to be repulsed not excited by such idiotic things. It is the twenty first century not the first.