Professor Niall Barr is author of Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein and will be giving a keynote lecture at the 75th Anniversary Conference on El Alamein at Wolverhampton University, 5-7th September 2017.
There is no doubt that the first of July 1916 holds a special place in the annals of British military history. In almost every anniversary year, with the exception of the Second World War, there has been a moving service of commemoration held at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing to mark the opening day of the battle of the Somme.
Yet while no one would question the marking of such an anniversary, the first of July is also the anniversary of another battle which holds a place within British military history but which has generally been left unremarked and unremembered. The date in question is the first of July 1942 which saw the first day of fighting at El Alamein in Egypt. The public imagination concerning El Alamein has always been connected to the ‘third’ battle of El Alamein, which took place from 23 October to 4 November, in which the Eighth Army finally achieved a decisive success routing Rommel’s forces, and eventually pushing them out of Egypt and Libya altogether. However, the events of 1-3 July 1942 at El Alamein were, in many respects, just as profound.
Having comprehensively defeated the British Eighth Army in the battle of Gazala and, on 22 June 1942, having seized the Libyan port of Tobruk, Rommel pushed his German-Italian Panzerarmee Afrika deep into Egypt. Eighth Army turned at bay at Mersa Matruh only to be bundled out of its positions in a confusing fight that lasted from 26-29 June. By 30 June, Rommel’s spearhead was approaching the obscure railway halt of El Alamein – just 125 miles away from Alexandria. Rommel joked with Major Georg Briel, the spearhead commander, that tomorrow they would drive together into Cairo for a coffee. Rommel was not alone in thinking that the British position in Egypt had collapsed. The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet pulled out of Alexandria while Italian families put out Axis bunting to welcome their troops into the city. 1 July 1942 became remembered in Cairo as ‘Ash Wednesday’ as British officials burnt such large quantities of secret and sensitive files that half-burnt pieces of paper floated down onto the city streets. Meanwhile, thousands of British and Commonwealth rear-area troops, wives, nurses and civilians were being evacuated on crowded trains either south towards Aswan in Egypt or north to Palestine. These experiences became known collectively, with perhaps a mixture of amusement and shame, as ‘the Flap’.
General Claude Auchinleck, who had taken command of the Eighth Army, had decided to halt Rommel at El Alamein. In a ‘backs to the wall’ order of the day, Auchinleck exhorted his tired and confused troops: ‘The enemy hopes to take Egypt by bluff. Show him where he gets off’. Endlessly quoted, there is little evidence that many soldiers of the Eighth Army were even aware of Auchinleck’s message at the time. On 1 July 1942, the fight for the Alamein line began with a headlong assault by Axis units aiming to repeat the success of Gazala and Mersa Matruh. By the end of the day, Eighth Army had held the attack which continued for the next two days. At the end of three days of fierce fighting, it was clear that Rommel’s attempt to break the Eighth Army and reach Alexandria and Cairo had failed.
It is hard to consider what might have been the consequences of an Axis victory at El Alamein without indulging in counter-factual history. That said, an Axis seizure of Alexandria may have had profound military, political and psychological effects. As the Eighth Army battled Rommel’s army on 1 July, so Churchill was battling against a ‘no-confidence’ motion in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister won the vote comfortably but the loss of Alexandria just days later may have altered the strategic calculus at the highest level.
It has been suggested that Rommel’s army was so exhausted and attenuated by the time that it reached El Alamein that there was no realistic chance of an Axis breakthrough to Alexandria. Rommel’s force was indeed almost at the end of its resources and the psychological impact of a victory at El Alamein may well have been far greater than the physical ability of Rommel to exploit it. However, the nature of the fighting and the equal exhaustion of the Eighth Army suggests that Rommel was halted by only the narrowest of margins.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of this history is that there seems to have been a semi-official British attempt to expunge the ‘first’ battle of El Alamein from the public memory. General Charles Richardson later claimed that ‘no battle entitled to that name “First Alamein” ever took place’. British veterans entitled to wear the Africa Star Medal could only wear the Eighth Army clasp if they had served in that army from 23 October 1942 to 12 May 1943 – criteria which expunged the service of many Eighth Army veterans from previous years, including that of first Alamein. Both Churchill and General Sir Bernard Montgomery, the next commander of the Eighth Army, had a vested interest in ensuring that the ‘battle’ of El Alamein that was remembered was the final, victorious one.
In fact, the battles around El Alamein were by no means a single engagement but actually formed part of a continuous campaign which lasted from July until November 1942. In this seventy fifth anniversary year, it seems particularly appropriate to remember ‘the crucial days’ of July 1942 when the fate of Egypt, the Middle East, and possibly the world, hung in the balance.
*The fighting around El Alamein in early July 1942 is referred to as ‘The crucial days’ in the 1943 British Ministry of Information film ‘Desert Victory’.
Image: Sherman tanks of 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers during the Battle of El Alamein, 5 November 1942, via Wikimedia commons.