On this day in 1942, General Montgomery breaks through Rommel’s defensive line at El Alamein, Egypt, forcing a retreat. It was the beginning of the end of the Axis occupation of North Africa.
In July 1942, having already taken Tobruk, Gen. Erwin Rommel and his mixed German-Italian forces attempted to push through the British defensive line at El Alamein, but failed. The Brits and the Axis had reached a standstill, and both sides took time to regroup before resuming the battle. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery took control of the British 8th Army, and on October 23 launched Operation Lightfoot, a broad offensive initiated by artillery fire. Rommel’s forces had dug a five-mile-deep defensive area, replete with minefields and antitank guns. But this did not stop Montgomery, who had three armoured divisions and almost seven infantry divisions. The Axis forces were without their leader, as Rommel had taken ill and was convalescing in Austria. By the time the German general was recalled to Africa by Hitler, two days after the launching of Lightfoot, Monty and his forces had pushed passed his defensive line and were six miles beyond the original stalemate point.
Rommel gave as good as he got, using his antitank weaponry to destroy four times as many British tanks as he lost (but still leaving the Brits with 800 against Rommel’s 90). Montgomery’s drive northward was stopped-but only temporarily. On November 2, he launched Operation Supercharge, switched the direction of his attack westward, and punched through the German-Italian line. Rommel retreated to Fukah but Hitler insisted that Rommel hold his position at El Alamein. Rommel obeyed, which was a mistake. Instead of making a stand at Fukah, he was forced to waste more time and more of his forces as the British pushed harder, forcing Rommel to retreat even farther as he attempted to escape sweeping British offensives from the south. By mid-January 1943, Rommel had been pushed through Libya into Tunisia. As Churchill would sum up: “Up to Alamein we survived. After Alamein we conquered.”