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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Second Battle of El Alamein

23 October to 4 November 1942

Theatre: North Africa
Area: Around the Egyptian town of El Alamein, 100km (60 miles) west of Alexandria
Players: Allies: General Bernard Montgomery's 8th Army, consisting of 30th Corps, 13th Corps and 10th Corps (British, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Indian and French troops). Axis: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika (German and Italian troops).
Outcome: Allied victory, forcing Rommel to retreat into Tunisia.

Note: Three hundred Sherman tanks that were hastily shipped to Egypt from the USA were a crucial influence on the outcome of this battle. The tanks gave Montgomery a significant advantage in firepower.

'This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.' - Winston Churchill, on the British victory at El Alamein, London, 10 November 1942

Although General Claude Auchinleck had stopped Rommel in his tracks during the First Battle of El Alamein in early July 1942, Churchill was becoming increasingly impatient with progress in the Western Desert. In early August that year, he arrived in Cairo and handed over command to General Bernard Montgomery. Auchinleck left for India.

Montgomery restructured the 8th Army, bringing in new divisions and generals and lifting the army's morale with his bold fighting talk - declaring among other things that he would 'hit Rommel for six out of Africa'. He also improved relations between the army and the Desert Air Force, ensuring a more unified attack plan.

Rommel attempted an attack between 30 August and 7 September (the battle of Alam Halfa), but the 8th Army held its ground, largely due to the excellent cooperation between the army and the air force. Montgomery did not make a counter-attack - he knew that reinforcements were on their way and he was biding his time.

Rommel knew that a major attack was inevitable, and did his best to prepare for it. He was a master of mobile warfare, but he had to change his preferred tactics due to a lack of fuel and transport. He chose to shelter his force behind a deep and complex minefield - dubbed 'the Devil's Gardens' by the Germans - backed by strong anti-tank gun positions.

But things were not going well on the German side. Rommel was plagued by illness and departed for hospital in Germany on 23 September, leaving General Georg von Stumme in command of a depleted Panzerarmee.

Montgomery planned his attack in two phases. The first, Operation Lightfoot, would consist of a powerful artillery bombardment followed by an attack by the infantry divisions of 30th Corps in the north, and 13th Corps in the south. They would open paths in the minefield through which the armoured divisions of 10th Corps would pass.

The bombardment started on the night of 23 October, but crumbling the German defences proved more difficult than expected. There was heavy fighting and the 8th Army slowly ground its way forward.

On 25 October, Rommel returned from Germany to take command, after Von Stumme died of a heart attack during battle.

On the night of 1 November, Montgomery launched the second phase of his attack, Operation Supercharge, which was designed to break through the last part of the German defences. The infantry units cleared the way for the armoured divisions, and Rommel, his army depleted and his petrol almost finished, decided the battle was lost.

On 2 November, Rommel warned Hitler that his army faced annihilation. The Allies intercepted his message and Montgomery had the deciphered note in his hands by the next morning.

Hitler ordered Rommel to 'stand and die', but the Panzerarmee had already begun to retreat by the time the order was received. At midday on 4 November, Rommel's last defences caved in and that evening he received orders from Hitler to withdraw.

The Second Battle of El Alamein was a turning point in the North African campaign. It ended the long fight for the Western Desert, and was the only great land battle won by the British and Commonwealth forces without direct American participation. The victory also persuaded the French to start cooperating in the North African campaign.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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