Tartu, Estonia. Baltic Defence College, 23 October. Seventy years ago today the British Eighth Army, comprising British, Australian, Indian, New Zealand and South African forces, launched the Second Battle of El Alamein. It was a battle that with Stalingrad would prove to be one of the most important of World War Two in the war against the Axis Powers. Taken together the two battles sounded the first toll of the death knell for Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich.
In what in many ways was a classical set-piece World War One assault a heavy British artillery barrage supported by air power hammered the one hundred thousand strong German Afrika Korps and their Italian allies before one thousand tanks and two hundred thousand men assaulted the Axis lines. Over the next eleven days General Bernard Law Montgomery, whose name became synonymous with this battle struggled to break through. Montgomery pulled his severely over-stretched enemy, at the very end of his lines of supply, north and south across the Egyptian desert to the west of Alexandria and Cairo. Finally, on 4 November no longer able to parry Montgomery’s thrusts the German commanders, absent their sick leader Rommel, broke. By the end of the battle the Afrika Korps had been reduced to less than thirty tanks.
Losses were steep on both sides but nothing like those suffered at the parallel Battle of Stalingrad (2 August 1942 to 2 February 1943) which eventually saw the Red Army defeat Von Paulus’s German Sixth Army. Within days of the victory at El Alamein Anglo-American forces landed in Morocco and rolled up the Afrika Korps which surrendered to the British in May 1943.
For the British the victory was particularly timely. Whilst the Royal Navy had by then effectively defeated the Kreigsmarine’s surface fleet, German submarines continued to threaten the British people with starvation. And, although the retaliatory strategic bombing campaign of the Royal Air Force was beginning to wreak havoc in Germany it was at an immense cost. On land the British had won no significant battle since the 1939 outbreak of the war. With the Americans rapidly taking over the strategic direction of the Western war from the British and with Stalin increasingly dismissive of British efforts Churchill desperately needed a major victory against the Wehrmacht to preserve at least a modicum of influence with Roosevelt and Stalin. El Alamein provided Churchill with just such a victory even though by late 1942 it was plain to see that Britain’s power was waning fast and that it would be the Americans and Soviets who would henceforth call most of the strategic shots.
In the wake of El Alamein the Western Allies began the long slog first through Sicily, then onto the Italian mainland as they laid the groundwork at Salerno and Anzio for the critical D-Day amphibious assault on 6 June, 1044. In the wake of El Alamein Nazi Germany became increasingly trapped in a three-dimensional vice between the Anglo-Americans, the Red Army and Western air power.
It is fair to say that the May 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany really began in the wastes of Stalingrad and the dust and sand of the Egyptian desert because taken together the two victories broke the myth of invincibility that the Wehrmacht had acquired. Having already defeated the Italians at sea critically El Alamein gave the Western Allies undisputed control of the Mediterranean.
There are also lessons from El Alamein for the defence and military strategy of today. Defence strategy that is not properly grounded in national grand strategy i.e. the organisation of large means in pursuit of large ends, is but a meaningless waste of taxpayer’s money. El Alamein served a very clear strategic end. Military strategy that is not embedded in and conscious of a workable political strategy and its context is merely a waste of lives and materiel. El Alamein was essential to the ultimate success of the Western political strategy. Above all, El Alamein was the proof of that old military adage; do what the enemy least desires, where and when he least wants it.
But El Alamein is testament to another military truism. Decisive advantage comes only when the critical weight of mass, manoeuvre and mobility has been established. Military innovation is important but cannot act as a short-cut to such advantage. Today, innovation is driven too much by the triumph of hope over experience. For example, a platoon will never do the job of a brigade, let alone a division.
Winston Churchill said of El Alamein, “This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.
Lest we forget.