What factors account for the British army’s victory at El Alamein in October- November 1942?

This is an essay from one of our second year war studies students. Comments welcome.

The British army won the Second Battle of El Alamein rather than the Germans losing it. Although Axis forces played some role in their defeat, it was the British who determined the outcome. This essay will demonstrate that the British were able to defeat the renowned ‘Desert Fox’, Erwin Rommel by exacerbating German political and strategic issues to generate favourable conditions for a British victory. The structure aims to show that through the control of Malta the British were able to deny the Germans the necessary supplies for victory. The disparity in available resources dictated the attrition style of warfare the British leadership wanted to fight. Material superiority on its own would not decide the victor, for the British had suffered defeats at Gazala and Tobruk whilst enjoying such superiority. This suggests that something had changed, the change was in the form of a new leader, General Montgomery, and thus his impact will also be examined.

Rommel understood the correlation between available resources and the capacity to fight, consequently with limited supplies he was greatly hindered in his ability to do so. An army cannot fight if it does not have the supplies, particularly in the case of motorized warfare that relies upon fuel. According to Rommel “The battle is fought and decided by the Quartermasters before the shooting begins.”  He uses his limited fuel supplies to illustrate this, stating that “with only 300 kilometres worth of petrol per vehicle… prolonged resistance could not be expected; we would be completely prevented from taking the correct tactical decisions and would thus suffer a tremendous limitation in our freedom of action.”  One example of this was how the Germans were incapable of performing a counter-attack because “Not only could we not have kept a mobile battle going for more than a day or two, but our armour could never have returned to the south if the British had attacked there.”

In contrast, the British had been steadily building up their supplies to be “better prepared to take the offensive against the Germans.”  According to Churchill the army had a “two-to-one superiority in numbers and at least a balance of quality.”  This is supported if cross referenced with Rommel’s estimates which provide similar figures and state that these included inferior Italian tanks of which “most of them were decrepit, and barely fit for action.”  Rommel also lamented that the British had “apparently inexhaustible stocks of ammunition”  claiming that under one artillery barrage the British had fired five hundred rounds for every one of the Germans.  It is clear to see how without even taking other factors into account Britain’s material advantage severely curtailed Germany’s ability to fight.

There are several reasons for the difference in each side’s resources and perhaps the most important was the role played by Malta, a small island that is situated between southern Italy and North Africa. Despite huge effort, the Italians were unable to capture the island from the British. This provided the British with an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”  in an ideal position from which to “harry enemy ports and supply routes across both the Mediterranean and the desert.”  The British certainly seemed to take full advantage of this position, Rommel stressed that they virtually “[paralysed] our sea traffic”  citing that they were only receiving “40 per cent of our absolute minimum needs.”

Another reason for the outcome can be found by comparing the strategic cultures of the opposing forces. Stephen Bungay refers to Britain’s colonial experiences as having a major influence, suggesting that “the British Army was used to fighting small colonial wars with primitive infrastructures. As a result, its doctrine emphasized logistics.”  This is contrasted with the German system which believed it would be fighting primarily in Europe and would therefore rely on railways as its primary form of transport. The logistical capabilities of the two armies therefore developed along alternate lines, the British, prepared with a motorized logistic chain and the Germans, with inferior numbers of motorized transport and still using horse and carts.  From this it is clear to see why the Germans had difficulty in supplying their troops.

Many historians have tended not to blame Rommel for the failure, with some, such as Alan Warren arguing that he “had lost the battle but had got the very maximum out of his army.”  This may be a fair comment if we look at defensive preparations he made, which Bruce Watson claims “posed a formidable barrier”  under the conditions Rommel found himself in there is little more he could have done, to try too aggressive a strategy would have been foolish and enhanced the probability of defeat. Richard Holmes agrees, believing that “the Germans, regardless of the commander on the day, had few real tactical alternatives at Alamein.”  Rommel himself believed he could have done no more, “I’m happy in my own conscience that I’ve done all I can for victory and have not spared myself.”  He criticized those senior to him “the military career of most of the people who aimed these accusations at us was notable for a consistent absence from the front, on the principle of… “far from the battle makes old soldiers.””  This reproach further illustrates how he believed that he was not accountable for blame. John Bierman and Colin Smith agree, blaming Hitler “only if Hitler could be persuaded to take his mind off of Russia long enough to spare the Panzerarmee at least a couple of armoured divisions … could the Axis hope again for a victory.”

However, is Rommel immune from blame? One argument against him is that by attempting to seize opportunities through bold action he “pushed his logistics to their limits… They often paid off… [and] when they did not, he berated the quartermaster.”  This would suggest that Rommel believed that his job was to achieve the results and that it was somebody else’s responsibility to ensure he could do this. This notion is flawed, to blame another is to imply that you rely on them and therefore that they prescribe the strategy. This is not true of Rommel, rather he expected others to follow and make his strategies work, instead of designing more practical plans. It must be conceded that Hitler’s focus on Russia and Italian weakness created a difficult climate for him to work in. However, it does not help to follow a strategy that often stretched an army’s logistics to the limit, progressively degrading the force. This can be seen from how instead of remaining in Libya on the defensive so that he did not outpace his supply chain he “[ignored] his orders and [tried] to kick the British out of Egypt… [causing] a supply problem which in the context was insoluble.”  This reveals that Rommel had an acute misunderstanding of the political climate, a key component in the makeup of a good general and necessary for victory.

What will now be assessed is how the British contributed to the outcome of the battle. In contrast to the Germans, the British lacked a leader with the dash and daring of Rommel. Perhaps this is why he has been given such merit; despite material inferiority his ‘plucky’ style had won battles. Montgomery was a different type of General; James Holland asserts “he was certainly no innovator.”  This point is somewhat irrelevant, Montgomery’s strengths laid elsewhere, Bungay describes him as a ‘Thatcherite’ and an ‘Autocrat’ , whilst Williamson Murray adds that he was “great motivator, trainer and realist”  With the army in the condition it was prior to his entry, these qualities were what was needed. Through extensive training he reformed the Eighth Army and created a coherent doctrine. His strategy may have been conservative, but it was one that would guarantee victory.

Montgomery was familiar with desert warfare, being a battalion commander in Alexandria and had commanded a division in Palestine during the Arab revolt in the late 1930’s.  His strategy and doctrine combined the different arms of the British forces, Fred Vigman shows how the allied forces came to agree, “The Field Service Regulations June 15, 1944, [conceding] that no one arm wins battles.”   One vital aspect was “Monty’s beliefs on how air power should be used to support the army”  Rupert Smith affirms this, “[he made] the maximum use of his air force to isolate the battlefield, thus reducing the enemy forces in depth and depriving them of the opportunity to assist their own forces.”  This was used in conjunction with huge artillery bombardments that Rommel describes as “torrential” where “everything that went into it… was ground into dust”  and produced “serious signs of fatigue and a sense of inferiority among our troops.”  The huge volume of firepower laid down by the air force and the artillery supported the infantry with the World War One style ‘creeping barrage’ helped create the breakthrough necessary for victory.

Montgomery was also aided by with the luxury of being able to decipher the German’s codes with ULTRA, which was the codename given to intelligence gained from the breaking of encrypted enemy communications. Roger Spiller claims that ULTRA “To an extraordinary degree… had lifted that fog from the battlefield”  It certainly had provided Montgomery with masses of information, one German account professed that “I was staggered at the exactness of his knowledge, particularly of our deficiencies and shipping losses. He seemed to know as much about our position as I did myself”  This extensive knowledge would clearly have aided the British cause and as seen from his knowledge of the German supply ‘deficiencies’ impacted upon Montgomery’s strategic thought.

In conclusion the British victory at El Alamein can be put down to two key elements, logistics and leadership. By controlling both the sea and air surrounding North Africa the British were able to significantly weaken the Germans position and impose their will through a battle of attrition. The British were able to build up their strength in and overwhelm the enemy. They were aided by Rommel’s cavalier nature, which initially saw him win some impressive victories but in the long term weakened his army by straining his supply chain to exhaustion. Yet it was Montgomery who through vigorous training and by combining the different arms of the British forces proved to be the difference, he was the catalyst that finally demonstrated allied superiority, EL Alamein ”proved that they had learnt how to translate strategic advantage into military success on the ground.”