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First Battle of El Alamein

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The enemy infantry tried to rush the British positions from dugouts that were prepared during the day, but it met an incessant fire. At midnight the stonewall defense once again had proved too tought for Marshal Rommel’s elite troops.

On the night of 14th July, Auchinleck counterattacked to relieve the pressure on the Australians, sending his 4th and 5th New Zealand Brigades and 5th Indian Brigade against some 4,000 Italians on Ruweisat Ridge. The attack was met with fierce close-quarter resistance and intense artillery fire between the night of the 14th and afternoon of 15th July, and in a devastating counterattack, German armor recovered the ridge. Total losses, killed and wounded in the 2nd New Zealand Division, exceeded 1,400, a hard and shocking blow to an already depleted infantry division.

Rommel, distraught at his inability to regain the offensive pressed for a rapid retreat only to be talked out of quitting by senior Italian commanders who issued fresh orders to Italian units to fight to the last man. The following day, the Sabratha in the form of the 85th Regiment retook Tel el Eisa, but suffered heavy losses in the process. Caccia Dominioni writes of the “splendid recapture of Tell el Eisa, carried out by the 1st Battalion 85th Infantry under Colonel Angelozzi on the afternoon of July 14”. On 16th July, the 2/23rd Battalion attempted to retake Tel el Eisa, but stopped its thrusts after incurring heavy losses. In his papers, Rommel writes:

“Next day, the 16th July, the British attacked again, but this time only locally. After intensive artillery preparation, the Australians attacked in the early hours of the morning with tank support and took several strong-points held by the Sabratha.

Later, recounting the 2/23rd Battalion attack, Mark Johnston wrote that “On 16 July, they were ordered to retake it and the rest of Tel el Eisa Ridge. After initial success, they suffered nearly 50 percent casualties and had to withdraw.”

On 17th July, two Australian battalions attacked south against Italian positions on Sanyet el Miteiriya and Makh Khad Ridge. The Australians captured 700 prisoners, but they came under fire from Italian gunners who, as always fought well and were later counterattacked by tanks and infantry, the Italians capturing no less than 200 prisoners. But the Australian War Memorial states that the counterattack was a German force, and while German records indicate that Italians from the 3rd Battalion 61st Trento Infantry Regiment were responsible, the Australian Official History just admits that “two forward platoons of the 2/32nd’s left company were overrun, 22 men were taken prisoner”, and implies that they were captured by the Germans. Johnston in Fighting The Enemy puts this down to “an unwillingness to acknowledge reverses against Italians.

One group of Italian combat sappers in company strength dug in on Makh Khad had held out all through the predawn darkness till sunrise, and were all reported killed or captured, having fought very bravely and well against the Australian 2/32nd Battalion, thus giving the Trento Division sufficient time to prepare a counterattack that drove the Australians back.

Many Of These Men Resisted To The Last Bullet

On 21st July, the Indians and New Zealanders launched a night attack designed to capture Ruweisat Ridge, which a Panzer expert calls “The Second Battle of Ruweisat Ridge”. Despite some initial success, various Italian units held out stubbornly until the morning of 22nd July and prevented the capture of Ruweisat Ridge. This put the whole Allied attack out of joint and then, at dawn, the 21st Panzer Division arrived on the scene and 132 British tanks, and 904 New Zealanders were lost, including 500 captured.

Samuel W. Mitcham, drawing upon Caccia-Dominioni’s account in his memoirs, stated that:
A mixed German-Italian combat team held on and proved that not all Italians had lost the will to fight. Many of these men resisted to the last bullet. Their heroic stand gave Rommel time to concentrate his Afrika Korps against the 23rd Armoured Brigade.

The German armored attack, and the skills and experience of his Italian troops saved the day, and Rommel knew this. He wrote at the time:

“The Italians were willing, unselfish and good comrades in the front line. There can be no disputing that the achievement of all the Italian units, especially the motorized elements, far outstripped any action of the Italian Army for 100 years. Many Italian generals and officers earned our respect as men as well as soldiers.”

Radio Rome said:

“The fighting which assumed particular tenacity has ended in favour of the Axis. The enemy has been everywhere repelled with counter-attacks and has sustained grave losses in men and materiel. Eight hundred prisoners, mainly New Zealanders, and Indians have fallen into our hands and 130 tanks were destroyed on the field. During that action the German Afrika Korps and the Italian Brescia and Trieste divisions particularly distinguished themselves.”

As testament to their stubborn resistance, posthumous decorations were awarded to Colonel Gherardo Vaiarini de Piacenza, Commanding Officer 65th Trieste Infantry Regiment, and Colonel Umberto Zanetti, Commanding Officer 66th Trieste Infantry Regiment.

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  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.