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First Battle of El Alamein

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Rommel in his report of 5th July to Feldmarschall Albert Kesselring, greatly exaggerated his losses in order to accelerate German reinforcements:

“The fighting value of the Italian troops is so low that on 3.7., during an attack by inconsiderable enemy armored forces, 360 men of Ariete Division were captured without having offered resistance worthy of the name. In addition the division lost 28 guns and 100 medium tanks.”

Fighting continued around the Brescia, and the New Zealand 23rd Battalion penetrated the sector, but they were promptly counterattacked, and lost a number of their men and equipment. The New Zealand Official History talks about “enemy forces seeping south threatened to outflank the division” but strangely nothing more. But Conrad H. Lanza wrote that Italian soldiers were the enemy involved in the action, in which the New Zealand 2nd Division lost part of their penetration:

“One of the night attacks was made by New Zealand troops, a Maori unit which entered and held an enemy strong point in a bayonet attack. They were later counterattacked by the Italian Pavia Division and lost a part of their gains during a severe fight under a fading moon.”

The Desert Night Was Vividly Lit
The Germans were too exhausted and the British too disorganized to renew the battle in earnest, but on 10th July the Australians launched an attack at Tel el Eisa in the north, relying on a very strong artillery bombardment and took 924 German and Italian prisoners and 27 guns. The Sabratha Division, disposed along the feature, received the initial blows of the 2/48th Battalion. In his papers, Rommel writes that the soldiers of the Sabratha were “throwing away arms and ammunition as they ran. It was primarily the Panzer Army’s staff, led at the time by Lieut.-Col. von Mellenthin, whom we had to thank for bringing the British attack to a halt.” However, the Italian diaries, however show that their formations were doing their very best to plug the holes punched in the Italian line by the Australians. The authors of Rommel’s North Africa Campaign, Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani, describe the events of the 10th and the morning of the 11th as follows:

“The Aussie attack succeeded in capturing two battalions of the 3rd Celere Artillery Regiment and the headquarters and commander of the 7th Bersaglieri. The remaining part of the Celere was also isolated. Navarini, commander of XXI Corps, immediately sent a battalion of the 7th Bersaglieri and a battalion of the 46th Artillery to block the road…”

From Major Paolo Caccia Dominioni’s account of this action:

“While the Germans of the 164th, together with a battalion of the Trieste and a few groups of Bersaglieri managed to form up in new positions between the sea and the left flank of the Trento, the decision was taken to recapture Hill 33 and the ridge parallel with the sea, which had already been occupied in force by the enemy and well stocked with artillery. The mission was entrusted to Major Verri’s battalion of the 11th Armored Trieste.”

The tanks of the Trieste attacked Tel el Eisa where the Australian 2/24th Battalion was dug in, early Saturday afternoon, while the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment moved out to attack positions near Tel el Eisa railway station. Before the day ended, the Sabratha’s reserve regiment, the 85th, joined in the preparations to attack the Australians. According to the 2/48th Battalion diary:

“At approx 2000 hours enemy tanks–number unknown– and inf attacked D Coy front. They overran psn and enemy inf forced D Company to withdraw and occupied their psn.”

The Australians counterattacked to cries of “Come on, you Australianoes”. Corporal Tom Derrick wrote that as his battalion prepared to recapture the position he repeatedly used the Italian word for Australians:

“We were to move forward in one long extended line, cross the railway line without a sound and on a shot from the OC we were to open up with everything and continue to advance firing as we went and calling out “Come on Australianoes.” … from the din of the Light Machine Guns, Tommy guns, rifles and grenades, also the blood curdling cries of advancing men, the enemy must have thought there were thousands and I think the Australianoes business helped a lot.”

On 13th and 14th July, the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions and the assembled Italian infantry made a concerted effort to retake Tel el Eisa but they were hurled back with crippling losses. Watching the Tel el Eisa action, Richard D. McMillan of the United Press wrote on the 15th:



Alamein at Amazon

 


“Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, in his most determined effort to break through the British lines since the Eighth Army
stopped him west of El Alamein, sent his best tank shock troops, supported by Italian infantry, into action at dusk last night
against the British position near Tel el Eisa.
The Desert night was vividly lit as German guns roared their challenge and British artillery sent shell after shell crashing against
German tanks and armored vehicles that were silhouetted against the glare. It was by far the most spectacular night battle I had
witnessed in this campaign.

Thus far, however, Marshal Rommel’s attempt to overrun Tel el Eisa and the sand dunes that dominate the area has not succeeded. The
enemy’s efforts up to now have cost him heavily in men killed, wounded and captured.

The German artillery struck with sledge hammer blows, trying to clear a path for the infantry, the progress of which I was able to follow through the night by the streams of machine-gun tracer bullets that left a glittering trail just above the ground. Green and white signal flares curled up from the German tanks as they drove forward.

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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.