The two flags

Inglesi avanzano verso la linea di fuoco

Prologue.

Nearby El Alamein– today  pleasant tourist Egyptian  resort-  there are, today as yesterday, a railway and a road, both strategic. Almost seventy years ago, badgered by Rommel, the British troops arrived in these places. Ever since, a lot of time has been passing. Over  the years El Alamein has changed its face, but it has not changed its  name: then and now “El Alamein” always means “The two flags.”

The advance.

In the African desert something is moving. Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, in fact, “urged” by the Duce himself, has taken action and has brought his two hundred thousand men in arms over the Egyptian border. He has done so reluctantly, but he has done it. We are in 1940, in September. Upon having heard the news, Rome is breathing a sigh of relief: “Finally, Graziani woke up: it was about time!” is the comment. Fascist Italy exults; London, needless to say, is worried.
After having advanced about hundred  kilometres in Egypt, Graziani stops. To consolidate his positions, he says. Or to see” which way the wind throws”, before advancing again. Obviously, it does not blow a “bad wind” in the bunker housed in the interior of an ancient Roman tomb if  Graziani dwells  there  three months without taking any initiative. He is in the cooler, at  about fifteen meters depth, while his officers and his soldiers, on the desert surface, erect fortifications under a scorching sun.
In Rome, Graziani’s employer, Cavalier Benito Mussolini, has increasingly frequent accesses of anger and, in private, does not fail to direct vitriolic appraisals to his own employee, unable, in his opinion, to take advantage of the situation. Graziani   has got more men, more means, more airplanes than the enemy: what is he doing, there, underground, in the cooler, instead of advancing and giving a terrific beating to the perfidious English?

The “beating”.

However, the beating, la legnata – word always loved by the Duce- was  given by the British. On 11 November while in the desert Graziani continues to “strengthen his positions”, some Royal Navy torpedo bombers arrive in the harbour of Taranto  and seriously damage  four Italian battleships. Farewell superiority- or at least equality-  with the “perfidious Albion” on the Mare Nostrum, farewell easy communications with overseas. Now reaching Tripoli, Bel suol d’amore, even reaching Greece, invaded by little, cost to Rome a great effort [1]. And  also supplying Graziani – always there, in Egypt,  to fortify- costs a great effort.
For what concerns them, the British have got about sixty thousand men in all and half of the warplanes of the Italians, but  when, on 9th December, General Sir Archibald Wavell, British commander in Africa and  in the Middle East, launches the divisions of Major- General Richard  O ‘ Connor against  Graziani’s divisions, there is no game. The Italians  are about three times more numerous than the British, but they are overhelmed and with them are overhelmed  also the fortifications erected during those three months. The Italians troops retreated hastily to Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, along the only available and viable way: the coastal road. With a bold and daring decision – a real masterstroke-  O’Connor advances his tanks through the dunes and cuts the escape route  to the enemies. Result: 130,000 prisoners (two-thirds, more or less, of Graziani’s forces), Tobruk  conquered  and Mussolini angry and in “braghe di tela[1]

It is time for trials. Who is guilty ? Guilty are  the too much  stretched and frayed supply lines; guilty is the British navy, that just does not want to leave   the Italian convoys sailing  in peace ; guilty is an equipment very scant or surpassed supplied  to the Italian divisions and , in Mussolini’s opinion, it is fault of Graziani’s unjustified wait-and-see policy. The Duce, increasingly angry, is free, of course, from any fault.
That being the case, Graziani is forced to resign and he is replaced by General Italo Gariboldi. Hitler, unwilling  to be entangled into a sector- the North Africa-  before then not even considered, gets wind of the bargain: it would be a beating for the British if they lost their control of the Suez Canal, of the Middle East and of the wells oil of Mesopotamia. Hitler persuades – or requires – Mussolini,  not really excited to ask  Germans for help,  to change his opinion and sends in Africa two divisions under the command of Major General ( later Field Marshal)Erwin Rommel.

The race of the fox.

The music changes immediately. Rommel, made his Afrikakorps operational in record time, launches, with the help a couple of Italian divisions, a counter-attack and he repulses  the British across the border. General O ‘Connor himself, following a road sign artfully modified by Germans,  is taken prisoner.
Rommel does not rest  on his laurels and he aims straight to Tobruk. The British pay, on the occasion, the price paid by Graziani during his first advance: their supply lines are too much stretched;  filling the tanks is difficult , as well getting  regular rations to the troops.  British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, having to choose between Africa and Greece, in October attacked by Mussolini, chooses Greece. General Wawell is deprived of some divisions and he is forced to “jump somersaults” to oppose to Rommel.
The name of the  first – and the only Wavell’s somersault – is  “Battleaxe“. It is a full-fledged offensive and it seeks to evict Rommel from his positions. However, during the attack, the British tanks bump against a wall of antitank cannons: the deadly 88 mm pieces  block them and Rommel counterattacks successfully.

The commanders change, the situations change. Out Graziani, in Gariboldi; out  Wawel, in Auchinleck. A pair of British offensive (including Operation Crusader  , launched by Auchinleck  at the end of ’41) are blocked ;  Rommel hits hard at El Gazala; Tobruk is conquered  and the Union Jack withdraws as far as El Alamein. Here Auchinleck sets up a defensive line: he blocks the road and the railway to Alexandria and with the right flank protected by the infernal Al Quattara impassable depression, alternates winning counterattacks  and bloody defeats. Finally, forced on the defensive, Auchinleck  renounces the attacks and strengthens his defence  waiting to retaliate against the “Desert Fox”.
We are at the end of July.

Dress rehearsal.

Auchinleck  has got no time. He is replaced, and at the  head of the Middle East Front comes Harold Alexander; also general Neil Ritchie is replaced  and at  command  of the Eighth Army comes Bernard Law Montgomery .
With a couple of ideas. First : attacking only under conditions of obvious superiority  – two or three to one, for instance; second: changing the tactical game , going against the tide and marrying a strategy of the past: cannons to raze the defences and infantry to act as a can opener.  “Give me five tanks, and give him five, and then we’ll see who is better”, says Rommel to his own officers. But the idea of a sort of mechanized Trojan War- tanks against tanks ad win the best- is as far away from Montgomery’s mind as the earth from the moon. He prefers to” work “the enemy at his hips and to worn  him- relying on air  superiority and on the tips of Ultra – before taking the final blow.
And, in fact, Rommel is “worn”: his supply lines are elongated.  He is aware of this and so, at the end of August, trying to force the situation,  reinforced by an Italian division and by a German  brigade of paratroopers, he attacks around Alam el Halfa . The British, fighting like lions,  resist. The Germans and the Italians are forced to give up and have to stop and regroup. And while they are reorganizing, the Sherman and Matilda tanks  arrive at   Monty’s camp.

Alam el Halfa-  the first battle of El Alamein- is perhaps the turning point. After the battle of El Gazala, Rommel wants to attack the British tooking advantage of their weakness: he asks for and gets top priority for the operation, at the expense of the conquest of Malta. He fails and so, after Alam el Halfa ,Montgomery has not given field, and, worse, Malta has not been conquered. And, taking off from the island, allied warplanes  sink  an Italian convoy after another.

The weak point.

Moreover, Rommel is not in good health. Perhaps he excessively “somatizes”,  perhaps he does not care of himself , perhaps feels too much tension, perhaps  he really has got a  diseased  liver. One thing is certain: on the eve of the decisive battle, Rommel is not in Africa, he is in  Austria for treatment. In  his place there is General Georg Stumme, expert on tanks, good soldier, but with  battered coronaries.
Who is  good is Montgomery. He does not drink, does not smoke, is “one hundred percent fit” [2], he took the right train [3], he is focused on the upcoming battle to the point of snubbing the vast majority of his officers and , at least in one occasion , even Winston Churchill; he is meticulous, fastidious, aloof, cautious, as Rommel is impulsive, swayer, amiable (with his soldiers), foolhardy. And the Italians? According to Rommel,  the Italian officers are “salami” or “trash”;  according to Monty, our divisions are the weak point of the whole deployment.
The one is wrong, the latter has got no reason. Maybe some Italian  senior officers are suitable, but the field officers know their stuff; maybe some divisions are poorly equipped or deployed in an unconfortable place, but the majority of ours knows how to fight. The  Italian flag, however , for the moment- at least by virtue of what (not) made by Graziani in the ’40 and according to the opinions of Rommel and Montgomery- is hanging limply from the flagpole.

The Devil and Mr. Bertram.

In the hospital, Rommel is relatively confident because he is aware  he has sown very well. There, at El Alamein, the devil’s gardens-  Teufelsgarten– stand between the two Italian-German defensive lines (the Oxalic line and the Pierson line , so British  called them) and the enemy, hiding thousands and thousands of mines of all types: landmines, anti-tanks, pressure and contact mines , delayed explosion mines. Some of them squirt from the ground and explode at midair , shooting hundreds of round lead balls.  The devil, let’s face it, would not have been able to plant better  his flowers.
But the devil, as we know,  has never got a single face. In the British camp he takes that one, seemingly innocuous, of  Mr. Bertram [4] and he has deal to make real  wooden tanks ; to pass off as real false messages, to relate the laying of a pipeline with a fake attack deferred indefinitely, given the slowness of the works; to mask as carrying trucks the Shermans and Matildas. In that game, the cheaters are the masters.
And the ultimate cheat -Mr Bertram- deceives the fox. Rommel is expecting an attack in force in the south (where there are British wooden tanks ), Montgomery designed the north (where the tanks are disguised as trucks); Rommel does not believe in an immediate attack, Montgomery is raring to go; Rommel imagines a battle of tanks, Montgomery plans to use the infantry as a can opener; Rommel think in terms of blitzkrieg, Montgomery seems regressed during the First World War.

One forward,  nine back.

When shortly before the 9 pm of October 23rd the British guns open  fire along the whole front, Rommel, thousands of miles away, can not hear them and Montgomery, a few hundred meters away,  reads Shakespeare’s Henry V in the step where the king prays to the God of Battles  “to steel”  the hearts of his soldiers  and  then he sleeps. He can do so. Everything, in fact, has been prepared with meticulous precision: main attack in the north, towards the Oxalic line,  diversionary attack in the south. In the north, the infantry would have to open two corridors in the Gardens of the devil, to allow the tanks to break over the German lines. In a nutshell, Monty’s idea is this: we break trough, we wait for the German counterattack, we take out their tanks and then we finish off them.
We know how these things proceed: never how they should. And, in fact, the opening of the first corridor , hampered by mines,  is slow; also the opening of the second corridor is slow, because of determined resistance – but the Italians were not “trash”? – of  Italian Trento Division. And in those moments, our tanks  – fragile, slow and ill-equipped –   armed, according to the Germans, by  ten speeds, one forward, and nine back,  seem to know one only: the first one.
The British advance goes at a snail’s pace. In the south, where they have developped a diversionary tactic, are blocked by our troops and, in particular, by the paratroopers of the Folgore Brigade, decided not to give even an inch of ground. But, if the British lose  a tank, now here are  two which take its place. To Rommel, returned hastily to Africa from his Procrustean bed  after the Stumme’s death for heart attack, such luxuries are not granted: a lost tank  is irremediably lost and can not be replaced. As time goes by the more, more  the Rommel’s  ” small tank treasure,” become smaller;  no hurry, Montgomery waits the right time to collect. But meanwhile, in that fight of attacks and counterattacks, time goes and people continue to die or get wounded at the rate of a thousand men a day. On the one hand and on  the other hand.

The end of the beginning.

On 26th October, four British armoured brigades are over the gardens. Behind them, large forces begin to group themselves.  In an attempt to close the hole, Rommel moved from south to north the Ariete Division and a couple of German brigades. For his part, Montgomery changes his schedule and directs attacks from south to north towards the coast. The British occupy a strategic high ground -the Kidney Ridge – and complete the opening of the second corridor. On 27th Rommel launches a counterattack, supported by aviation, but it fails for the decisive intervention of the RAF: it is a kind of shooting and what that remains  of Afrikakorps (renamed Afrikapanzerarmee) is crashed.
Rommel wants to withdraw  and to reach safer locations, but Hitler does not allow it: fighting and resisting until the last man, orders Berlin. What to do? Listen to Hitler? Ignore him? From Italy, Feldmarshal Albert Kesselring  suggests to  take the Fuehrer’s order  as a suggestion, not as a peremptory provision. But Rommel, with death in his heart, and against the advice of many of his officers, obeys Hitler. Losing  other tanks and other soldiers.
At this point there is no story. After reorganized during a couple of days, the British bring a terrible supercharge and smash. The Germans were forced to withdraw. The Italians are the last to do it: they stand up and fight like lions. Short of ammunition, they fill by explosives the cans of tomatoes and attack the enemy tanks. After the breakthrough, another battle of El Alamein begins and the British pursues  the  fox  like a pack of terriers. In vain. Maneuvering like a master and taking advantage of Montgomery’s caution, Rommel escapes. But his time is now expired. There is not only the Eighth Army to take care : in Tunisia, on 8th November,  another fire is lit: Operation Torch has landed men and supplies behind the German lines.

El Alamein was celebrated and emphasized left and right. Montgomery became a genius and almost no one, in the heath of the moment, pointed out the fact that, after the victory, Rommel had escaped. Churchill’s “improvised” one of his famous sentences and gave to the history  “the end of the beginning  “. [5] A victory- and, above all, a victory came after many defeats -makes all  more generous and full of praise. Even toward the enemy. El Alamein was no exception. Even the Italian soldiers were celebrated and lauded by the British. But beware: they deserved to be lauded. Badly direct, with an oudated equipment, low on water and food, they fought until the last. ” We did not miss valour,  as we read of a pillar celebrating the Folgore Brigade: rather we missed  luck. But, in addition , missed many things that could help the luck: arms and food -as we have said – equipment, ammunition, medicines. Who was guilty?

Epilogue.

While the Union Jack is flying  over the now harmless gardens of the devil,  the commander of the Ariete Division sends the following message to their superiors: the division has got three tanks only: we counterattack. At that moment  Graziani  is forgotten and the Italian flag, at first floppy on the yard, comes to life in the desert wind. In that moment, in that precise moment, El Alamein  fully deserves the name of “two flags”.

To read:

Ken Ford, El Alamein 1942: The turning of the tide, 2009
David Irving, The trail of the fox,  1978
John Keegan, The Second World War: A Military History,  2003
Alan Moorehead, The desert war : The North Africa campaign 1940-1943, 1968
C.E. Lucas Phillips, El Alamein, 2002.

On the following map, taken from the book by John Keegan, The Second World War, a military history, quoted, are represented the movements of the Second Battle of El Alamein (23 October-4 November 1942). Clic on the map to enlarge it.

The following address of the BBC website by appropriate animation describes the  steps of the battle.

The original picture is from: arsbellica.it

The sequence of events.

September 13th, 1940: Italian troops under the command of Marshal Rodolfo Graziani cross the border between Libya and Egypt, conquer Sollum and penetrate for about hundred kilometres  into Egyptian territory. Arrived at Sidi el Barrani, they stop and begin to fortify positions.
October 28th: Mussolini declares war on Greece. The Italian troops entered Epirus from Albania.
November 11th: British torpedo bombers rose in flight  from aircraft carrier Inlustrious seriously damaged the Italian battle fleet at anchor in the harbour of Taranto. The Mediterranean is no longer an “Italian lake”.
December 9th: the British launch their attack. Nine Italian divisions (75,000 men) crumble in front of four British divisions (36,000 men)  and withdraw towards Libya.
December 17th: British troops of Major- General Richard O’Connor reach the Libyan border.
January 1st 1941: the British conquer the fortress of Bardia, Cyrenaica, making more than 35,000 prisoners. The Italians withdraw to Tobruk.
January 11th, 1941: Hitler issues Directive No. 22: Germany sends German troops to Africa to help the Italians, because “Tripoli should be preserved.” General Erwin Rommel is chosen as commander .
January 22nd: British troops reach Tobruk.
February 6th: Australian troops conquer Benghazi, taking prisoner  seven generals, including General Annibale Bergonzoli.
February 7th: Beda Fomm is conquered.
February 11th: Britain decides to give priority to Greece at the expense of decisive shove in North Africa. The operations in this sector stagnate.
March 25th: Rommel takes the initiative, conquering the fort of El Agheila and preparing a more important offensive.
March 27th: around Cape Matapan, in the southern Aegean Sea, during a fierce gun battle, the British fleet inflictes a severe blow to the Italian navy.
April 4th: Rommel recaptures Benghazi and, in the following days, the whole Cyrenaica.
April 10th: Australian forces in Tobruk are cut off and besieged.
May 15th: Rommel is successfully counterattacked  by the British and he must leave  Halfaya. On 27th May, he will regain it.
June 15th : The British launch Operation “Battleaxe” to drive back Rommel from Egypt. After four days of bitter fighting, the Germans and the Italians remain masters of the battlefield.
July 5th: The British General Claude Auchinleck replaces General Sir Archibald Wavell , deposed after the failure of Battleaxe.
November 18th: the operation Crusader takes off: under the pressure of the British, Italian and German forces retreat to El Agheila. British and Italian-Germans stopped to reorganize.
May 27th, 1942: anticipating an Auchinleck’s offensive, Rommel attacks at El Gazala. The British are forced to withdraw and stood at Alam el Halfa, near El Alamein.
June 21st: Tobruk surrenders to Rommel.
July 5th: Auchinleck was replaced by General Harold Alexander; Bernard Law Montgomery takes command of Eighth Army.
August 31st: Rommel attacks at Alam el  Halfa ; Montgomery repulses the Italian-German offensive.
September 2nd: Rommel withdraws to the line of departure from where he had departed  to launch the Alam el Halfa offensive .
October 23rd:  the second battle of El Alamein starts: it will end on 4th November

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[1] On 27 March 1941, the Italian fleet will suffer another serious blow in the battle near Cape Matapan, in the southern Aegean Sea.

[2] The future Marshal pronounced this sentence (“I do not drink, I do not smoke, I am fit 100%”) to launch a cutting remarke about Winston Churchill. The British Prime Minister replied: “I drink, I smoke and I am fit 200%”.”

[3] Originally, to command the Eighth Army was designated the expert and reliable General William Gott. Shortly before taking the command, however, General Gott died in a plane crash, leaving open way to Montgomery.

[4] With this name, the British designate a campaign intended to confuse the Germans about the attack guidelines.

[5] On 10th November, immediately after the conclusion of the battle of El Alamein, he declared:  “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”


[1] Italian way of saying wich  means “ suffering serious harm”, “ remain without anything”. In English “canvas trousers”?

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