Our next campaign was the North Africa Campaign. It was based around the second battle of El-Alamein in late 1942.
In North Africa we flew as 112 Squadron DAF (Desert Air Force), the Shark Mouthed Squadron from October 23rd to November 4th 1942 and our mount for this campaign was the Kittyhawk Mk III (P40M).
We used the Kittyhawk as a fighter, fighter-bomber and escort aircraft in a wide variety of missions. Our adversaries were the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica.
The air combat was as hard, dirty, fast and furious as it was back in 1942. The campaign itself was mainly based on one pilot's war record- W.O. Wilfred David Brown R 86267 of RAF 112 Squadron.
No. 112 Squadron was formed on 30 July 1917 as a home defence unit at Throwley for the defence of the London area. Day and night interceptions were flown against enemy bombers until the end of the war, the Squadron being disbanded on 13 June 1919.
On 16 May 1939, No. 112 reformed aboard the aircraft carrier 'Argus' at Southampton bound for the Middle East, arriving in Egypt ten days later. Gladiators were received in June and when Italy joined the war a year later the Squadron flew fighter patrols over the Western Desert. In January 1941 No. 112 moved to Greece to provide air defence and offensive patrols over Albania. When the Germans invaded Greece it provided fighter cover for the Athens area until evacuated first to Crete and then back to Egypt. In July 1941 it was re-equipped with Tomahawks for fighter sweeps over the desert and then it received Kittyhawks in December 1941, beginning fighter-bomber missions in May 1942. The Squadron provided support for the 8th Army in the Western Desert and after the Allied victory at El Alamein it was moved to Tunisia. In July 1943 it was moved to Sicily and on to Italy in September receiving Mustangs in June 1944. No. 112 provided air support for the Allied armies in Italy for the rest of the war and after occupation duties northern Italy, disbanded on 30th December 1946.
By July 1942 the Panzer Army Africa, comprising the German Afrika Korps, Italian and German infantry and mechanized units under General Erwin Rommel, had struck deep into Egypt, threatening the British Commonwealth forces' vital supply line across the Suez Canal. Faced with overextended supply lines and lack of reinforcements and yet well aware of massive Allied reinforcements arriving, Rommel decided to strike at the Allies, while their build-up was still not complete. This attack on 30 August 1942 at Alam Halfa failed; expecting a counter-attack by Montgomery's Eighth Army, the Afrika Korps dug in. After six more weeks of building up forces the Eighth Army was ready to strike. 200,000 men and 1,000 tanks under Montgomery made their move against the 100,000 men and 500 tanks of the Afrika Korps.
The Battle of El Alamein is usually divided into five phases, consisting of the break-in ( October 23 -24), the crumbling ( October 24 -25), the counter ( October 26 -28), Operation Supercharge ( November 1 -2) and the breakout ( November 3 -7). No name is given to the period from October 29 to the 30th when the battle was at a standstill.
Phase 1: The Break-In On a calm, clear evening under the bright sky of a full moon, Operation Lightfoot began with 882 field and medium guns firing a barrage that continued for five and a half hours, at the end of which each gun had fired about 600 rounds. During that time, 125 tons of shells fell on the enemy gun positions. There was a reason for the name Operation Lightfoot, the infantry had to attack first. Many of the anti-tank mines would not be tripped by soldiers running over them since they were too light (hence the code-name). As the infantry attacked, engineers had to clear a path for the tanks coming up in the rear. Each stretch of land cleared of mines was 24 feet wide, just enough to get tanks through in single file. The engineers had to clear a five-mile route through the ‘Devil’s Garden’. It was a difficult task and one that failed because of the depth of the Axis minefields.
The Allied plan called for the XIII Corps to make a feint attack to the south, engaging the German 21st Panzer Division and Italian Ariete Armoured Division which were both tank divisions, while XXX Corps in the north attempted to forge a narrow pathway through the German minefield for the armoured divisions of X Corps. At 10 p.m., the infantry of XXX Corps began to move. The objective was an imaginary line in the desert where the strongest enemy defenses were situated. Once the infantry reached the first minefields, the mine sweepers (sappers) moved in to create a passage for the tanks. At 2 a.m., the first of the 500 tanks crawled forward. By 4 a.m. the lead tanks were in the minefields, where they stirred up so much dust that there was no visibility at all, and traffic jams developed as the tanks got bogged down. Back to Top
Phase 2: The Crumbling The morning of Saturday 24 October brought disaster for the German headquarters. The accuracy of the barrage destroyed German communications and Georg Stumme, who commanded the Axis forces while Rommel was in Germany, died of a heart attack. Temporary command was given to General Ritter von Thoma. Meanwhile, XXX Corps had only dented the first minefields. Not enough of the minefields had been cleared to enable X Corps to pass, so all day long the Allied Desert Air Force attacked Axis positions, making over 1,000 sorties. Panzer units attacked the British 51st (Highland) Division just after sunrise, only to be stopped in their tracks. By 4:00 p.m. there was little progress. At dusk, with the sun at their backs, Axis tanks from the German 15th Panzer Division and Italian Littorio Division swung out from Kidney Ridge to engage the Australians, and the first major tank battle of El Alamein was joined. Over 100 tanks were involved and by dark, half were destroyed, neither position was altered. While the Australians were fighting the 15th Panzer, the Highlanders, on their left, were engaging in the first tank versus infantry battle at El Alamein. It was to last for two days, but when it was over the Allies held Kidney Ridge.
The initial thrust had ended by Sunday, both armies fighting non-stop for two days. The Allies advanced through the western minefields to make a six mile wide, five mile deep inroad. They sat atop Miteriya Ridge in the southeast, but the Axis forces were firmly entrenched in most of their original battle positions. General Bernard Montgomery ordered an end to conflict in the south, the evacuation of Miteriya Ridge and a swing north toward the sea. The battlefield would be concentrated at the Kidney and Tel al-Eissa until a breakthrough. It was a hard seven days. By early morning, the Axis forces launched attacks using 15th Panzer and Littorio divisions. The Afrika Korps probed for a weakness, but found none. When the sun set, the Allied infantry attacked. Around midnight, the 51st Division launched three attacks, but no one knew exactly where they were. Pandemonium and carnage ensued, resulting in the loss of over 500 Allied troops, leaving only one officer among the attacking forces. While the 51st was operating around the Kidney, the Australians were attacking Point 29, a 20 foot high Axis artillery observation post southwest of Tel al-Essa. This was the new northern thrust Montgomery had devised earlier in the day, and it was to be the scene of heated battle for days. The 26th Australian Brigade attacked at midnight. The air force dropped 115 tons of bombs and the Allies took the position and 240 prisoners. Fighting continued in this area for the next week, as the Axis tried to recover the small hill that was so vital to their defence. Back to Top
Phase 3: The Counter Rommel returned to North Africa on the evening of the 25th and assessed the battle. He found that the Italian Trento Division had lost half of its infantry, the 164 Light Division had lost two battalions, most other groups were under strength, all men were on half rations, a large number were sick, and the entire Axis army had only enough fuel for three days. The offensive was stalled. Churchill railed, "Is it really impossible to find a general who can win a battle?" A counterattack began at 3 p.m. against Point 29 near Tel al-Eissa. Rommel was determined to retake the position and moved all the tanks from around Kidney to the battle site. Air and ground power poured into the area as Rommel moved the 21st Panzer and Ariete Armoured Division up from the south along the Rahman Track, turning out to be a mistake. The British held the position and Rommel's troops could not retire for lack of fuel, and were stuck on open ground at the mercy of air attacks. Back at Kidney, the British failed to take advantage of the missing tanks. Each time they tried to move forward they were stopped by anti-tank guns. On a brighter note for the British, Beaufort torpedo bombers of No.42/47 Squadron Royal Air Force sank the tanker Proserpina at Tobruk, which was the last hope for resupplying Rommel's thirsty machines.
By now, the main battle was concentrated around Tel al-Aqaqir and Kidney Ridge. The 2nd Battalion of The Rifle Brigade, belonging to the British 1st Armoured Division, was at a position codenamed Snipe, to the southwest of the Kidney. The stand at Snipe is one of the legends of the Battle of al-Alamein. Phillips, in his Alamein records that: "The desert was quivering with heat. The gun detachments and the platoons squatted in their pits and trenches, the sweat running in rivers down their dust-caked faces. There was a terrible stench. The flies swarmed in black clouds upon the dead bodies and excreta and tormented the wounded. The place was strewn with burning tanks and carriers, wrecked guns and vehicles, and over all drifted the smoke and the dust from bursting high explosives and from the blasts of guns." Mortar and shell fire was constant all day long. Around 4 p.m., British tanks accidentally opened fire against their own position, killing many. At 5 p.m., Rommel launched his major attack. German and Italian tanks moved onward. With only four guns in operation, the Rifle Brigade was able to score continual broad-side hits against forty tanks of the 21st Panzer Division, knocking out thirty-seven of them. The remaining three withdrew and a new assault was launched. All but nine tanks in this assault were also destroyed. The Rifle Brigade was down to three guns with three rounds each, but the Germans had given up on this assault.
The Australian 9th Division was to continue pushing northwest beyond Tel al-Eissa to an enemy-held location south of the railway known as Thompson's Post and force a breakthrough along the coast road. By the end of the day, the British had 800 tanks still in operation, while the Axis had 148 German and 187 Italian tanks. With the tanker Luisiano sunk outside Tobruk harbor, Rommel told his commanders, "It will be quite impossible for us to disengage from the enemy. There is no gasoline for such a maneuver. We have only one choice and that is to fight to the end at Alamein."
The night of October 30 saw a continuation of previous plans, with the 9th Australian attacking. This was their third attempt to reach the paved road, which they took on this night. On the 31st, Rommel launched four retaliatory attacks against Thompson's Post. The fighting was intense and often hand to hand, but no ground was gained by the Axis forces. On Sunday, November 1, Rommel tried to dislodge the Australians once again, but the brutal, desperate fighting resulted in nothing but lost men and equipment. By now, it had become obvious to Rommel that the battle was lost. He began to plan the retreat and anticipated retiring to Fuka, a few miles west. Ironically, 1,200 tons of fuel arrived, but it was too late and had to be blown up. Back to Top
Phase 4: Operation Supercharge This phase of the battle began on November 2 at 1 a.m., with the objective of destroying enemy armour, forcing the enemy to fight in the open, reducing the Axis stock of petrol, attacking and occupying enemy supply routes, and causing the disintegration of the enemy army. The intensity and the destruction in Supercharge were greater than anything witnessed so far during this horrific battle. The objective of this operation was Tel al-Aqaqir along the Rahman track, which was the base of the Axis defense. This attack started with a seven hour aerial bombardment focused on Tel al-Aqaqir and Sidi Abd al-Rahman, followed by a four and a half hour barrage of 360 guns firing 15,000 shells. The initial thrust of Supercharge was to be carried out by the battle-scarred New Zealanders (although the attacking infantry were two brigades attached from British infantry divisions and the armour to follow the infantry were the British 9th Armoured Brigade, attached to the New Zealand division). The New Zealanders' commander, Freyberg, had tried to free his division of this chore, as they were under strength and weary, but that was not to be, so on this cold November night with the moon on the wane, the New Zealanders moved out.
The infantry gained their objectives, but as with Operation Lightfoot, lanes could not be cleared through the minefields until night was almost over. 9th Armoured Brigade was forced to make its attack silhouetted by the early daylight. As dawn came on November 2, tank after tank was hit by the German 88 mm guns that kept firing through seven air attacks. The 9th never made it to their objective. In fact, they took 75% casualties and lost 102 of their 128 tanks. Nevertheless, they breached the gun line and the British 1st Armoured Division of X Corps, under command of Raymond Briggs, was now able to engage. In the heat of the noon day sun, 120 Italian and German tanks advanced for the biggest, most critical and final tank battle of El Alamein, the Battle of Aqaqir Ridge. This battle continued all day. "The desert, quivering in the heat haze, became a scene that defies sober description. It can be discerned only as a confused arena clouded by the bursts of high explosives, darkened by the smoke of scores of burning tanks and trucks, lit by the flashes of innumerable guns, shot through by red, green and white tracers, shaken by heavy bombing from the air and deafened by the artillery of both sides." The day's fighting was called the "Hammering of the Panzers". Although tank losses were nearly equal, this represented only a portion of the total British armour, but most of Rommel's tanks.
Rommel called up Ariete from the south to join the defense around Tel al-Aqaqir in the last stand of the German army. By nightfall, the Axis had only thirty-two tanks operating along the entire front. While the Afrika Korps was fighting for its life at Aqaqir, Rommel began the withdrawal to Fuka. Back to Top
Phase 5: The Break Out Erwin Rommel sent a message to Hitler explaining his untenable position and seeking permission to withdraw, but Rommel was told to stand fast. Von Thoma told him, "I've just been around the battlefield. 15th Panzer's got ten tanks left, 21st Panzer only fourteen and Littorio seventeen." Rommel read him Hitler's message, so he left to take command at the head of the Afrika Korps. When 150 British tanks came after the remaining members of the nearly vanquished 15th and 21st Panzers, Von Thoma stood with his men. He was in the command tank at the spot where the two panzer units joined, and there he remained until the last tank was destroyed. At the end, when all was lost, Von Thoma stood alone beside his burning tank at the spot that was to become known as the "panzer graveyard". Despite the desperate situation, Rommel's men stood their ground. Entire units were destroyed, but the remnants continued to fight. A 12 mile wide hole had been cut in the Axis line. "If we stay put here, the army won't last three days... If I do obey the Fuhrer's order, then there's the danger that my own troops won't obey me... My men come first!" Rommel ordered the massive retreat against Hitler's orders.
On November 4, the final assaults were underway. The British 1st , 7th and 10th armoured divisions passed through the German lines and were operating in the open desert. The Allies had won the battle. The Axis were in retreat. This day saw the liquidation of the Ariete Division, the Littorio Division and the Trieste Motorised Division. So far, Rommel had lost nearly 12,000 men and 350 tanks, and had only 80 working tanks left. The Allies also suffered heavy losses: 23,500 men were killed, missing or wounded, amounting to nearly a quarter of the 8th Army's infantry strength. John Currie of the 9th Armoured Brigade pointed to twelve tanks when asked where his regiments were. "There are my armoured regiments". Major-General Douglas Wimberley swore, "Never again." Back to Top