El Alamein in detail

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Turning Point at El Alamein

For a brief period in 1942, the tiny railway station at El Alamein commanded the attention of the entire world. Since 1940 the British had battled the Italians and Germans for control of North Africa; fighting raged back and forth from Tunisia to Egypt as first one side and then the other seized the advantage.

By 1942, Axis units under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the celebrated ‘Desert Fox’, had pushed the Allies back to the last defensible position before Cairo – a line running from El Alamein 65km south-west to the impassable Qattara Depression. The situation appeared hopeless. British staffers burnt their papers to prevent them from falling into enemy hands; the Germans were expected in Alexandria any day; and Mussolini flew to Egypt to prepare for his triumphal entry into Cairo.

In desperate fighting, however, the Allies repulsed the next German thrust by late July. In early September, galvanised by the little-known general Bernard Law Montgomery, the Allies parried a second attack that focused on the famous Alam Al Halfa ridge.

Montgomery gathered his strength for an all-out counteroffensive, which he launched on 23 October 1942. Intense fighting raged for 13 days, with each side suffering appalling losses, until the Axis line at last crumbled. Rommel’s routed legions retreated westward, never to return to Egypt. The Desert Fox was recalled to Germany to spare him the disgrace of defeat, but 230,000 of his soldiers eventually surrendered in Tunisia.

Montgomery was knighted and became the most famous British general of the war. In 1946 he was made First Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, a title he used for the rest of his life. Of the battle, Winston Churchill famously said, ‘Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.’