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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : First Battle of El Alamein

1-4 July 1942

Theatre: North Africa
Area: Around the Egyptian town of El Alamein, 100km (60 miles) west of Alexandria.
Players: Allies: General Claude Auchinleck's 8th Army consisting of 30th Corps, 13th Corps and 10th Corps (British, Australian, South African, Indian, New Zealand and French troops). Axis: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Panzer Armee Afrika (German and Italian troops).
Outcome: Allies halt Axis drive into Egypt. This was followed by a tense stand-off lasting until the Second Battle of El Alamein, with neither army giving up much ground.

'The battles for the last positions before Alexandria are hard.' - Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, in a letter to his wife on 3 July 1942

After the Allied defeat at Gazala in late June 1942, Auchinleck's 8th Army retreated to prepare a new line about 100km (60 miles) west of Alexandria in Egypt. The line ran from the small town of El Alamein near the Mediterranean coast to the cliffs edging the Qattara Depression, an area of impassable salt marshes to the south.

Both sides were tired and their resources depleted. Expecting the worst, Auchinleck was preparing defences as far east as the Gaza Strip in Palestine, and these very visible contingency plans did nothing to boost the 8th Army's morale.

Rommel's army was suffering from a chronic shortage of fuel, transport and other supplies, but the man dubbed the Desert Fox was convinced that one more push eastwards would get him into Cairo.

At 2.30am on 1 July, Rommel launched his attack. The Panzer Armee edged forward for hours, but by mid-afternoon a barrage of British artillery fire cut the Field Marshal off from his headquarters for more than two hours, and the Axis offensive ground to a halt.

Rommel reorganised and tried again the next day, but the British artillery and RAF put up some fierce resistance. The Allied forces' Grant tanks were giving them a material advantage against the previously superior German tanks - and in addition, the British tanks simply outnumbered the Germans.

On 4 July, Rommel acknowledged in a letter to his wife that things were not going well - his army was exhausted and the Allied resistance simply too great. On the fifth day of battle, he realised that his troops were stretched beyond their limits and ordered a pause to rest.

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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