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"THE END OF THE BEGINNING"
Written By: Peter Ayers Wimbrow, III
*Click images below to view larger versions.
"THE END OF THE BEGINNING"
Coconut Times author Nick Wahoff in front of the Austalian Memorial honoring their participation in the battle of El Alamein campaign, July –Nov. 1942.
"THE END OF THE BEGINNING"
Eighth Army cmdr. Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery (l) and his dinner guest and prisoner, Baron Wilhelm von Thoma (r), cmdr. Deutsche Afrika Korps.
"THE END OF THE BEGINNING"
Captured Italian Generals - foreground, (l) Giorgio Masina, commander Trento Infantry Division, (c) Brunetto Brunetti, commander Brescia Infantry Division, (r) Mario Bignami.
"THE END OF THE BEGINNING"
Georg Stumme, cmdr. of Panzerarmee Afrika, who died of heart attack on first day of battle.
"THE END OF THE BEGINNING"
Greeks at el Alamein.
  This week, British Lt. General Bernard Law Montgomery launched his reinforced, re-equipped, reinvigorated and rested Eighth Army at Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s outnumbered, ill-fed and under-equipped Panzerarmee Afrika.
    The Eighth Army’s 220,000 men and 1100 tanks were divided into the X, XIII and XXX Corps, commanded by Herbert Lumsden, Brian Horrocks and Oliver Leese. General Lumsden’s X Corps consisted of the First and Tenth Armoured Divisions commanded by Major Generals Raymond Briggs and Alexander Gatehouse. General Horrock’s XIII Corps consisted of the 7th Armoured and the 44th and 50th Infantry Divisions, commanded by Major Generals John Harding, Ivor T. P. Hughes and John Nichols. General Nichols’ 50th Division contained a brigade each of Greeks and French soldiers, commanded by Pausanias Katsotas and Réne Génin, while General Harding’s 7th Armoured Division included Pierre Koenig’s French Brigade that had fought so well at Bir Hachem during the Battle of Gazala. General Lease’s XXX Corps consisted of the First South African, Second New Zealand, Fourth Indian, Ninth Australian, and the 51st Highland Infantry Divisions, commanded by Dan Pienaar, Sir Bernard Freyberg (responsible for losing Crete to a numerically inferior German force of paratroopers), Francis Tuker, Sir Leslie Morshead (responsible for the successful defense of Tobruk during the 183-day siege in 1941) and Douglas Wimberly.
    The 49,000 German and 54,000 Italian soldiers of the Panzerarmee Afrika were divided into four corps: Deutsche Afrika Korps, commanded by Baron Wilhelm von Thoma; the X Infantry Corps, commanded by Enrico Nebbia; the Italian XX Motorized Corps, commanded by Giuseppe de Stefanis; and XXI Italian Infantry Corps, commanded by Enea Navarrini.
    Baron von Thoma’s Deutsche Afrika Korps, consisted of the following divisions: 15th and 21st Panzer; 90th and the 164th Light Afrika; and the Giovani Fascisti, commanded by Gustav von Värst, Heinz von Randow, Count Theodor von Sponeck, Carl-Hans Lungershausen and Ismaele Di Nisio. General de Stefanis’ XX Motorized Corps consisted of the Ariete and Littorio Armoured, and the Trieste Motorized Infantry, Divisions, commanded by Francisco Arena, Gervasio Bitossi and Francisco La Ferla. General Nebbia’s X Corps included the Pavia, Brescia Infantry and Folgore Airborne Divisions commanded by Nazzareno Scattaglia, Brunetto Brunetti and Enrico Frattini. General Navarrini’s XXI Corps included the Trento and Bologna Divisions, commanded by Giorgio Masina and Alessandro Gloria.
    Taking a page out of the Austro-Hungarian Army’s experience in World War I, the Axis alternated Italian and German Divisions. The term for that is "corseting."
    When Eighth Army struck, the vaunted and inspirational "Desert Fox" was no longer at the helm of Panzerarmee Afrika. The months of desert fighting had worn him to a frazzle and he was in Germany trying to repair his health. The commander, during his absence, was Georg Stumme. In addition, corps’ commanders Nebbia and Navarrini were also on leave. Their positions had been temporarily filled by Generals Frattini and Gloria. Command of General Gloria’s Bologna Division was assumed by Colonel Arrigo Dall’Olio.
    But the Axis forces had not been idle in the months leading to Eighth Army’s assault. They had sown 500,000 mines and strung miles and miles of barbed wire in the 40 miles between the Mediterranean Sea and the impassable Quattara Depression to the south.
    At precisely 9:40 P.M. on October 23, 1942, 882 British guns began firing at the 40-mile long Axis line. For twenty minutes the firing continued and then the Commonwealth gunners slowly began adjusting their range westward. Behind the barrage, Commonwealth troops advanced. The pipes of the Highlanders could be heard above the barrage. Overhead, the Royal Air Force was adding its "contribution" behind the Axis frontline.
    At dawn, General Stumme drove to the front and was felled by a fatal heart attack. A few hours later, the Desert Fox received a telegram apprising him of the situation. The Field Marshal arrived at the battle site at 11:30 on the evening of October 25, to find that his army was still holding - just barely. He issued the following message: "I have taken command of the army again. Rommel." No doubt it was designed to, and did, inspire confidence in the Axis soldiers. But there was no amount of confidence that would be able to overcome the Commonwealth’s overwhelming air, numerical, logistical and materiel superiority and the Axis’ lack of fuel. That day the Axis army was renamed Deutsch-Italienisch Panzerarmee or Armata Corazzata Italo-Tedesca, and the Field Marshal received the following message from Rome: "I have been instructed by the Duce to express his profound appreciation of a [non-existent] successful counterattack personally led by you. The Duce wants you to know that he is fully confident that the battle now in progress will end victoriously under your command. Ugo Cavallero." Marshal Cavallero was chief of the Italian Commando Supremo.
    Generals Nebbia and Navarrini arrived the same day and resumed their commands.
    Faced with the lack of an immediate, overwhelming victory, Churchill lamented, "Is it really impossible to find a general who can win a battle?" But Monty had predicted the victory would not come before ten days. It would take twelve.
    The Commonwealth effort had been concentrated in the north. On the evening of October 27, Monty withdrew the 1st Armoured and 2nd New Zealand Divisions from that area. Upon learning of this, Churchill became infuriated and dispatched an emissary to Monty’s headquarters to ask if he was trying to lose the battle. With the response of, "On the contrary! But we are busy now," the Prime Minister’s emissary was shown the door!
    Meanwhile, Rommel’s fuel problem was getting more dire by the hour. Five days into the battle, another tanker with 3,000 tons of fuel, destined for Deutsch-Italienisch Panzerarmee, was sunk. In a comparison to the Greek Titan, Prometheus, the Italian Duce told Marshal Cavallero that the problem of fuel for the Panzerarmee, "...gnawed at his liver, day and night."
    On October 29th, Field Marshal Rommel cabled Marshal Cavallero that if he got supplies and reinforcements of some 6,000 trained and equipped men, he had a chance of holding. The Field Marshal knew that without these supplies and reinforcements, it was only a matter of time before the weight of the Allied attack overwhelmed his outnumbered and outgunned army. Later that day the German Field Marshal learned that yet another tanker had been sunk.
    At 1:00 A.M., November 2nd, Montgomery sent General Freyberg’s 2nd New Zealand Division into the line. That area was defended by General Lungershausen’s 164th, and General La Ferla’s Trieste, Divisions. When the counterattack which he sent in at 11:00 A.M. that day by, what was left of, the tanks of the 15th and 21st Panzer and the Littorio and Trieste Divisions failed, the Field Marshal knew that the jig was up and they were going to have to pull out. Rommel gave the order to withdraw.
    Then, on November 3, a message arrived from der Führer, which was interpreted as "No retreat." The Field Marshal then countermanded his previous orders. On the afternoon of November 4, 1942, Rommel’s superior and theater Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring arrived at Deutsch-Italienisch Panzerarmee’s headquarters and told Rommel to disregard the order and communicated his support for the retreat to Berlin. Rommel again issued the order to retreat at 5:30 P.M. on November 4, 1942. This resulted in much confusion among the Deutsch-Italienisch Panzerarmee.
    By that time, Deutsche Afrika Korps’ commander, General von Thoma, who had been wounded 20 times in two world wars and been awarded Bavaria’s highest medal for bravery in WWI - the Max Joseph Medal - and the Reich’s highest medal for bravery in WWII - the Knight’s Cross - had been captured, and the Axis Army reduced to 30 German and 10 Italian tanks. When he learned of der Führer’s "no retreat order," General von Thoma declared it "madness," donned his full dress uniform, mounted his tank and drove to the thick of the battle. That evening, the captive general dined with General Montgomery, and later recalled, "I was staggered by the exactness of his knowledge. He seemed to know as much about our position as I did, myself!" Of course he did - with the help of the "Ultra" deciphering project, which had broken the German code. When told that General von Thoma had been captured and dined with Monty, Churchill remarked, "I sympathize with General von Thoma: Defeated; Captured; - and dinner with Montgomery!"
    Eighth Army incurred the following casualties: 2350 dead; 8500 wounded; 2260 missing and 500 tanks disabled, with all but 150 repaired. Axis casualties were: 4-5000 dead; 7-8000 wounded and 35,000 captured. Contrary to myth, several of the Italian divisions, especially the Ariete and Folgore, fought until they had completely exhausted their ammunition and their units were utterly destroyed. For example, London Radio said, "The remnants of the Folgore Division put up a resistance beyond every kind of human possibility." That they performed as well as they did is a testament to their bravery, for their government provided them with the worst rifles, tanks, equipment and organization of any of the combatants.
    The fallback position was to have been Fuka, but it couldn’t be held. On November 7, Mersa Matruh was lost. The next day, Operation Torch began, with American Forces landing in Morocco and Oran and a combined British and American force landing at Algiers. Suddenly, all the reinforcements and equipment that Rommel had been requesting, and with which he might have broken through to the Suez Canal - but had been told were unavailable - were shipped to Tunisia!
    Sidi Barrani was recaptured, for the second, and last, time, on November 9. The next day the first Axis troops were airlifted into Tunis, and Churchill gave the following speech:
    "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Henceforth, Hitler’s Nazis will meet equally well armed and perhaps better armed troops. Henceforth, they will have to face, in many theaters of war, that superiority in the air which they have so often used without mercy against others, which they boasted all around the world, and which they intended to use as an instrument for convincing all other peoples that all resistance to them was hopeless." (Emphasis supplied.)

NEXT MONTH: THE ALLIED INVASION OF FRENCH NORTH AFRICA

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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