All About Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel(10)…
Second Battle of El Alamein…
In September British raiding parties attacked important harbours and supply points. The flow of supplies successfully ferried across the Mediterranean had fallen to a dismal level.
Some two-thirds of the supplies embarked for Africa were destroyed at sea. In addition, Rommel’s health was failing and he took sick leave in Italy and Germany from late September. Thus he was not present when the Second Battle of El Alamein began on 23 October 1942. Although he returned immediately, it took him two vital days to reach his HQ in Africa. The defensive plan at El Alamein was more static in nature than Rommel preferred, but with shortages of motorized units and fuel, he had felt it was the only possible plan. The defensive line had strong fortifications and was protected with a large minefield which in turn was covered with machine guns and artillery. This, Rommel hoped, would allow his infantry to hold the line at any point until motorized and armoured units in reserve could move up and counterattack any Allied breaches.
General Georg Stumme was in command in Rommel’s absence but during the initial fighting he died of a heart attack. This paralyzed the German HQ until General Ritter von Thoma took command. After returning, Rommel learned that the fuel supply situation, critical when he left in September, was now disastrous. Counterattacks by the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions on 24 October and 25 October had incurred heavy tank losses due to the intensity of the British artillery and air attack. Rommel’s main concern was to counterattack in full force and throw the British out of the defensive lines, which was in his view the only chance the Axis had of avoiding defeat. The counterattack was launched early on 26 October but the British units that had penetrated the defensive line held fast on Kidney Ridge. The Allies continued pushing hard with armoured units to force the breakthrough, but the defenders’ fire destroyed many tanks, leading to doubts among the officers in the British armoured brigades about the chances of clearing a breach.
Montgomery, seeing his armoured brigades losing tanks at an alarming rate, stopped major attacks until 2 November when he launched Operation Supercharge and achieved a 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) penetration of the line. Rommel immediately counterattacked with what tanks he had available in an attempt to encircle the pocket during 2 November, but the heavy Allied fire stopped the attempt. By this time Panzer Army Africa had only one-third of its initial strength remaining, with only 35 tanks left operational, virtually no fuel or ammunition and with the British in complete command of the air, yet the British armour had been fought to a standstill, having taken murderous losses with some armoured brigades reporting losses of 75%.
On 3 November Montgomery found it impossible to renew his attack, and he had to wait for more reinforcements to be brought up. This lull was what Rommel needed for his withdrawal, which had been planned since 29 October, when Rommel determined the situation hopeless. At midday, however, Rommel received the infamous „victory or death” stand-fast order from Hitler. Although this order demanded the impossible and virtually ensured the destruction of Panzer Army Africa, Rommel could not bring himself to disobey a direct order from his Führer. The Axis forces held on desperately.
On 4 November Montgomery renewed the attack with fresh forces, and with almost 500 tanks against the 20 or so remaining to Rommel. By midday the Italian XX Motorized Corps was surrounded, and several hours later was completely destroyed. This left a 20 km gap in Rommel’s line, with British armoured and motorized units pouring through, threatening the entire Panzer Army Africa with encirclement. At this point Rommel could no longer uphold the no-retreat order and ordered a general retreat. Early on 5 November he received authorization by Hitler to withdraw, 12 hours after his decision to do so—but it was far too late, with only remnants of his army streaming westward. Most of his unmotorized forces (the bulk of the army) were caught.
Part of the Panzer Army Africa escaped from El Alamein, but this remnant took heavy losses from constant air attacks. Despite urgings from Hitler and Mussolini, the Panzer Army did not turn to fight, except for brief holding actions, but withdrew under Allied pressure all the way to Tunisia. However, the retreat was conducted most skilfully, employing scorched earth tactics and leaving behind booby traps, making the task of the pursuers very difficult. The Allied forces had great numerical superiority and air supremacy, while most of Rommel’s remaining divisions were reduced to combat groups.