United Kingdom Royal Army General Claude Auchinleck, hampered by the siphoning of his men and equipment to support the abortive Greek campaign, had lost all the British gains of 1941 to the fast-driving German General Erwin Rommel. In June 1942, Auchinleck had fallen back to the last line of defense before Alexandria: El Alamein was only sixty-five miles to the west of Alexandria, bounded by the Qattara Depression, terrain impassible to tanks.
Rommel, following the British, hit the El Alamein line on July 1, 1942. The Afrika Korps was so far from their supply lines they could not make a serious attempt to break through. Rommel dug in, and created a defensive line of mines, antitank guns, tanks, and infantry. The Eighth Army fought the Afrika Korps there for a month, keeping them out of Alexandria, and protecting the major base there. Nevertheless Churchill sacked Auchinleck and he returned home.
When Auchinleck’s replacement was killed in an air accident, Churchill appointed Lieutenant General Bernard L. Montgomery to command the Eighth Army on August 12, 1942. He took command of a thoroughly exhausted army with low morale. He claimed El Alamein would be the decisive battle of the war.
With characteristic deliberateness, Montgomery sought to rebuild the fighting spirit of the Eighth Army. Waiting for reinforcements, especially American tanks, Montgomery retrained his army for two months. British High Command and Churchill were growing impatient, and encouraged him to move. Montgomery took his time, as he would in France two years later.
On October 23, 1942, Montgomery started Operation Lightfoot. Commonwealth Forces moved against Rommel’s line after four hours of artillery bombardment by 1,000 guns. Sappers crawled on their hands and knees, feeling for mines by hand to cut two corridors across the minefields for tanks.
Little progress was made against the Afrika Korps. The plan was shifted to the south when Australians penetrated deep into German territory. Montgomery built up his forces there, and attacked on November 2. Rommel attacked with all his tanks, and lost heavily.
Hitler told Rommel to stand and die in El Alamein, but he disobeyed orders and retreated on November 4. Four days later Americans began landing in North Africa, and the Afrika Korps was on the road to final defeat. Months of hard fighting were ahead for both sides.
El Alamein was the last major battle in the war that was exclusively a Commonwealth affair. After that, the Americans would begin to contribute the major balance of men and materiel to the war.