Saturday, June 4, 2011

First Battle of El Alamein

March 15, 2010 by David Aldea  
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Morrises, Fords, Dingos And Jeeps

Auchinleck’s last effort came in the northern sector. He ordered a two-pronged attack to be launched during the night of 26th-27th July aimed at breaking through the Italian lines the Sanyet el Miteiriya. One battalion from 9th Australian and two battalions from the 50th British Divisions were to seize the ridge. From the speech of historian Peter Stanley:

“What turned out to be the final British Commonwealth attack in July was to be launched against Axis troops on Sanyet el Miteiriya – known as “Ruin Ridge” from the remains of a building on its crest – a low stony rise running roughly east – west. The Ruin Ridge attack was based on a complex plan involving a night attack through minefields. While an Australian battalion advanced southwards to occupy Ruin Ridge, British battalions would be attacking at right angles. British tanks would then advance through minefields cleared by South African engineers. The aim was to breach a section of line held by Italian troops, the more brittle element in Rommel’s army.”

The Australian advance began at midnight with heavy artillery fire in the known enemy positions followed by the advance of the 2/28th Battalion, supported by the anti-tank guns carried on the lorries of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment and the infantry battalion’s Bren carriers. Under constant fire, the attackers lost thirteen vehicles during the night, and among the casualties were two company commanders, but by 1.10 am the battalion gradually cleared the forward slopes and took 117 prisoners. However, the 3rd Battalion 61st Trento Infantry Regiment continued to hold out.

A full account of the Trento’s role in the battle and after is provided by Second Lieutenant Eithel Torelli:

On the 27th the bombardment started at dawn and went on till about nine o’clock. Then came the smoke. We opened fire with our machine-guns and 47/32s. We stopped after a bit to see what effects we were having; a slight breeze was clearing the dust. We could see the Australians and British advancing rather spread out, about 750 yards in front of us, all in groups corresponding with their units. We ceased fire with the machine-guns — there was still plenty of time for them — but continued with our 47/32s. Our battery also fired for a time, not for long, but very concentrated while it lasted. We saw the enemy in disorder, and their ambulances coming up. Then they formed up again and continued their advance. It was more difficult to get at them now because of the undulating dunes — like waves in a high sea — gave them plenty of cover. When they got within 300 yards, we opened up with everything. The noise was terrific; you could only tell a gun was firing by the smoke and powder coming out of its muzzle. It was almost eleven o’clock. My tommy-gun broke down after about 3,000 rounds — ejector broken! The machine-gun also played up a bit after 5,000 rounds. But by that time the attack was begining to peter out. The British artillery had packed it in. By midday it was all over. After the withdrawal, followed by our counterattack, the ambulances returned to start ferrying back the dead and wounded, but we got suspicious after an hour or so because they seemed to be hanging about too much. We fired a few shots over their heads to let them know it was time to break it up. They took the hint and went — and didn’t come back.

From the diary of Lieutenant S. A. Walker:

The Bn was completely surrounded by armoured cars which worked forward under cover of fire from enemy tanks further back, while 20mm, MMG and mortar fire kept the heads of our own troops well down. In this manner the enemy was able to cut off and dispose of sections and platoons one by one, until at 1030 hrs Bn HQ area was occupied by several armoured cars and surviving personnel taken prisoner. An effort had been made to hinder the enemy armoured vehicles by bringing Arty fire to bear on them before they dispersed. Unfortunately the only communication with Bde was by one wireless set WT repaired by Sigs, after about eight hours work. Messages reporting the situation were sent immediately once this set was capable of functioning, i.e., about 0930 hrs onwards. Last message was “All up, overrun!”

This counterattack was delivered by an Italian armoured reconnaissance force, the Reconnaissance Group of the Trieste, hastily reformed from Morris, Dingo and Ford armoured cars, as their own vehicles were worn out. The swiftness of the attack caught the Australian 2/28th Battalion by surprise. At 9.43 am the Australian battalion commander reported, “We are in trouble. We need help–now”, he signalled. “Are there any of our tanks helping us? There are tanks all round us. You had better hurry up.”

The battalion commander frantically tried to get artillery support, but with the Trieste’s Reconnaissance Group rapidly closing in, the battalion was soon overrun. In a stunning defeat for Auchinleck, about 1,000 British and Australians fell into enemy hands at Sanyet el Miteiriya.

Caccia Dominioni of the 31st Combat Sappers Battalion recalls the reaction of the Italian soldiers:

“The names of certain units were on everyone’s lips up and down the line following particularly brilliant actions, among them the reconnaissance Group of the Trieste. It had been set up some time previously: it was hardly a homogeneous unit on the German pattern, but did reflect admirably the Italian genius of improvisation. They had no more than nine vehicles–Morrises, Fords, Dingos and Jeeps, all captured from the enemy–armed with small calibre guns and machine-guns of all descriptions, British, Italian and German, together with two Britsh 88 guns and their carriages, and two small supply lorries.”

Stunned by these violent assaults and rapid series of defeats, both sides were now exhausted and the battle petered out. General Auchinleck and the Eighth Army could claim a victory of sorts for Rommel had been stopped, but as Alan F. Wilt notes,

“Yet, overall, between May 26 and July 21, Axis forces had once again proved far superior. Despite heavy losses, in both men and equipment, the German and Italian forces had advanced 290 miles, their farthest easterly penetration during all of the North Africa campaigns, almost to Alexandria itself.”

The Commonwealth troops, particularly the New Zealanders, felt that their attacks had not been well handled. There were in fact, some 13,000 British Commonwealth casualties; total Axis casualties were about 13,000, including 7,000 captured in the three weeks of fighting. Churchill, who was disappointed at the failure of the British counterattacks, now decided that Auchinleck must go. On 8th August, he removed Auchinleck from command.

Article By: David Aldea (
David is also 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)

The Global War by Horst Boog
Rommel’s Desert War: The Life and Death of the Afrika Korps (Stackpole Military History Series)
Rommel’s North Africa Campaign: September 1940-November 1942 (Great Campaigns)
The Official History Of New Zealand In The Second World War
The Axis Invade Egypt by Conrad H. Lanza
Alamein, 1933-1962 (Guerre fasciste e seconda guerra mondiale) (Italian Edition)
2/48th Battalion War Diary
Vain Axis Assault Fires Desert Night by Richard D. McMillan
2/32nd Battalion Website Australian War Memorial
The World Almanac And Book Of Facts 1942
Ruin Ridge by Peter Stanley
July 1942 Diary by Lieutenant S. A. Walker

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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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