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BATTLE OF ALAM EL HALFA OR THE ENGLISH PATIENT TO THE RESCUE
Written By: Peter Ayers Wimbrow, III
*Click images below to view larger versions.
BATTLE OF ALAM EL HALFA  OR THE ENGLISH PATIENT TO THE RESCUE
Hungarian Count László Ede Almásy
BATTLE OF ALAM EL HALFA  OR THE ENGLISH PATIENT TO THE RESCUE
(r-l, center three) radio operator Hans-Gerd Sandestede, Hungarian Count László Ede Almásy, Johannes Eppler.
BATTLE OF ALAM EL HALFA  OR THE ENGLISH PATIENT TO THE RESCUE
Giuseppe de Stefanis, cmdr. Italian XX Motorized Corps
BATTLE OF ALAM EL HALFA  OR THE ENGLISH PATIENT TO THE RESCUE
Field Marshals Erwin Rommel (l) and Albert Kesselring (r) with Fritz Bayerlein.
BATTLE OF ALAM EL HALFA  OR THE ENGLISH PATIENT TO THE RESCUE
Egyptian Pres. Anwar El-Sadat
    This week, seventy years ago, Germany’s vaunted "Desert Fox" threw the dice, one last time. He knew that behind its barbed wire and minefields, the enemy, under its new commander Bernard Law Montgomery, was growing stronger every day. Production of a new 6 pounder anti-tank gun had been increased and they were being distributed to Montgomery’s Eighth Army. This new weapon, unlike its predecessor, was effective against German tanks. From the United Kingdom, the Allied Eighth Army received more than 7800 vehicles and 368 tanks and from Canada and the U.S. another 8000 vehicles in July and August, with another 100,000 tons of supplies due at the end of August. In addition, the monstrous "Flying Fortresses" and "Liberators" were arriving, so that death and destruction were beginning to rain down on the Libyan ports, further compounding Panzerarmee Afrika’s logistical woes.
    Essentially, the Axis were trapped. Because of the R.A.F.’s control of the air, and the lack of vehicles and fuel for the Panzerarmee Afrika, the Axi    s could not retreat over the open desert, back to Libya. The new German Field Marshal had no choice but to attack.
    In the meantime, Hungarian explorer, cartographer and spy Count László Ede Almásy, who held the rank of captain in the Luftwaffe and was assigned to the Panzerarmee Afrika, had inserted two agents into Cairo - Johannes Eppler and his radio operator, Hans-Gerd Sandestede. Eppler had been raised in Egypt after his mother remarried an Egyptian businessman, and spoke Arabic fluently. After arriving in Cairo, Eppler rented a houseboat on the Nile next to the one occupied by belly dancer Hekmat Fahmy, whom he had befriended before the war. He and Fahmy then recruited other dancers and hookers for the operation. They also recruited members of the "Free Officers Movement" - an anti-British cadre of Egyptian army officers. One of their recruits was future Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat. They were easy to recruit because many of them viewed the Axis as liberators coming to free them from the British yoke.
    However, the operation was run more like a party, and was compromised and all caught, including Sadat. So, instead of providing information to the Axis about Allied movements, it did just the opposite, and helped lure Panzerarmee Afrika into an unwise attack at Alam El Halfa. The Hungarian Count was recreated as a character in the novel, and Academy Award winning movie, "The English Patient," and was portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, who received an Oscar nomination for the role.
    Field Marshal Rommel envisioned this battle as being similar to the Battle of Gazala, where he (literally!) led the Axis armor around the southern end of the Commonwealth line, and went on to defeat the Eighth Army. However, there were several differences this time: (1) the R.A.F., instead of the Luftwaffe, controlled the air; (2) the Commonwealth now had an effective anti-tank gun; (3) the topography eliminated the possibility of an "end around" in the south; (4) the Panzerarmee Afrika was at the end of a much longer supply line; (5) it was low on fuel - and most everything else; and (6) the enemy’s new commander, Montgomery, had increased the morale and overall fitness of the Allied soldiers.
    With Panzerarmee Afrika’s infantry feinting in the north, Field Marshal Rommel, on the moonlit night of August 30, 1942, sent the following three corps through the enemy minefields to the south: Walther Nehring’s Deutsche Afrika Korps; Benvenuto Gioda’s X Infantry; and Giuseppe de Stefanis’ XX Motorized Corps. The DAK consisted of the following divisions: 15th and 21st Panzer and 90th Light Afrika, commanded by Gustav von Värst, Georg von Bismarck and Ulrich Kleemann. The X Corps contained the Pavia, Brescia and Folgore Divisions, commanded by Nazzareno Scattaglia, Brunetto Brunetti and Enrico Fratinni, while the XX Motorized Corps contained the Ariete and Littorio Armored, and Trieste Motorized, Divisions commanded by Francisco Arena, Gervasio Bitossi and Francesco La Ferla. The three corps were equipped with 200 German and 240 obsolete Italian tanks. They would be facing 500 British and American tanks.
    With the information gleaned from the counter-espionage operation in Cairo from "The English Patient" cast, and from the "Ultra" code breakers in London, General Montgomery knew Field Marshal Rommel’s plans. As the Axis’ armor went on the attack, on the evening of August 30, the Royal Air Force rose to the occasion. During the bombing, DAK’s commander, General Nehring, was wounded and replaced, briefly, by Fritz Bayerlein. 21st Panzer Division’s commander, General von Bismarck, was killed and replaced by Colonel Karl-Hans Lungershausen. Later that day, General von Värst assumed temporary command of the DAK and Heinz von Randow temporarily took command of 15th Panzer.
    The German Field Marshal had planned that the armor would be through the minefields and around the southern end of the Commonwealth position and ready to attack north by 6:00 A.M. on August 31. However, the RAF’s bombing and Commonwealth resistance delayed the northbound part of the offensive until 1:00 P.M. Even then, it did not go where originally planned. Rather, it turned into the prepared Allied positions at Alam el Halfa, held by 2nd New Zealand, 10th Armoured and 44th Infantry, Divisions, commanded by Sir Bernard Freyburg, Alexander H. Gatehouse and I. Thomas P. Hughes, which were equipped with the new 6 pounder anti-tank guns and new American Grant tanks.
    As night began to fall, with losses mounting and the Axis attack making little progress, General von Värst ordered the DAK pulled back. Meanwhile, the RAF continued to pound the Axis supply lines. The attack was briefly renewed, at dawn on September 1. Continually harassed by the RAF, the "Desert Fox" knew it was time to quit. On September 3, as the Axis were withdrawing back to their start line, the Commonwealth launched a poorly coordinated counter-attack, which came to naught.
    Casualties were: 2930 for the Axis and 1750 for the Commonwealth, with the Commonwealth losing a few more tanks than the Axis.
    Now, there was nothing for Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika to do, but wait for the Eighth Army’s attack.

LESSONS
- Field Marshal Rommel learned of the effect of overwhelming Allied airpower, which would color his thinking in defending Normandy.
- General Montgomery had already learned his lesson, from his predecessors, not to start chasing the Panzerarmee Afrika hundreds of miles to the west when his army was not prepared for such an effort, only to have the enemy turn and sting him. He was also in the midst of reorganizing and reequipping Eighth Army so that it could, once and for all, defeat the enemy, which reorganization and reequipment could not be accomplished on the fly.

NEXT WEEK: THE CAPTURE OF NOVOROSSIYSK

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. Mr. Wimbrow can be contacted at wimbrowlaw@beachin.net <mailto:wimbrowlaw@beachin.net> .

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