TODAY marks the 75th anniversary of the start of when the Allies really began to win the war against the Axis forces of German and Italy.

The Second Battle of El Alamein began on October 23, 1942, and ended on November 11 with the British-led Allies under General Bernard Law Montgomery decisively defeating the German and Italian forces led at first by General Georg Stumme and then by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.


NOT exactly, for it was not even the first victory of the Allies over the Axis powers, as is often thought. In Operation Compass in late 1940, troops from Britain, India, Australia and the Free French forces had smashed the mainly Italian 10th Army – taking nearly 140,000 prisoners – to recapture western Egypt. And the previous winter’s Operation Crusader had seen the German Afrika Korps under Rommel suffer serious reversals for the first time, though the Desert Fox rallied and re-took many positions in a North African campaign that has been characterised by historians as “to and fro” as the Allies and Axis forces each had their periods of superiority.

Elsewhere, the Russian defeat of the Germans outside Moscow the previous winter and the Americans’ devastation of the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 were colossal victories that helped turn the tide of war in Eastern Europe and the Pacific, but the Second Battle of El Alamein was the first major reverse suffered by the Germans on land in the West.


A CURIOUS affair that ended in stalemate, the First Battle of El Alamein saw Middle East commander General Claude Auchinleck decide to make a stand at a railway station called El Alamein on the Egyptian coast, and thus conferred on this tiny outpost a name that is famed in military history.

Rommel brought the Axis forces into western Egypt and headed for El Alamein, knowing that the alternative was to cross the Sahara Desert well south of that position. Auchinleck had air superiority and more tanks and men, but the Axis forces were victorious at first, only for the British, Indian, Australian and New Zealand troops to hit back. The month of July became one long series of engagements that ended with the two armies more or less where they started off.


THERE then occurred one of those accidents of history that brings the “man of the moment” to the fore. Churchill had decided that Auchinleck’s defensive strategy could not continue, and General William Gott was appointed to take command of the Eighth Army. On his way to Cairo on August 7, Gott’s aircraft was shot down and although he survived the crash landing, two German fighters strafed the crashed Bristol Bombay so that no-one survived.

Montgomery was duly sent in as Gott’s replacement and from day one set about transforming the Eighth Army, rallying the troops personally and building up huge stores of men and “matériel” such as artillery and tanks as he prepared for what he knew would be the second and decisive battle of El Alamein.


ROMMEL launched an attack on Alam el Halfa at the end of August, but Montgomery knew from intercepts of German Ultra intelligence at Bletchley Park what Rommel intended. He did not press home the advantage gained in this battle, mostly by destruction of German tanks and vehicles by the RAF.

Montgomery built up his forces still more, even managing to get some serious desert training of raw troops done. He had nearly 200,000 men and 1029 tanks against the 116,000 men and 547 tanks of Panzer Army Africa. It was time to break out, and a massive artillery barrage started the battle on October 23.

By luck, Rommel had gone back to Germany as he was a sick man. General Georg Stumm took over but was no Rommel, and himself died of a heart attack early in the battle.

Rommel came back quickly and stiffened the German resistance, but it was too late. Montgomery had a new weapon, the powerful American Sherman tank, and plenty of them, plus Spitfires and American bombers, and with the Desert Rats leading the way, the German and Italian defensive lines were smashed. Rommel’s army was also running out of fuel, and after attack and counter-attack the Allies began to gain the upper hand. Hitler told Rommel to fight on and surrender not one yard of ground, but despite setbacks in the first days of November, the Allies destroyed the Italian divisions in particular and Rommel decided to withdraw from Egypt altogether.

The vaunted Afrika Korps began a 700-mile retreat, only to learn that Operation Torch, the British-American invasion of north-west Africa, had successfully taken place. They were trapped on all sides, and eventually all the Axis forces in North Africa surrendered the following May 13.

In the Second Battle, up to 59,000 Axis troops were killed, injured or went missing, compared to 13,560 casualties for the Allies.

Winston Churchill ordered church bells to be rung all over Britain and later wrote: “It may almost be said, ‘Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat’.”