Veterans Day 2012 has me once again reflecting on 1942, the 70th anniversary of the year the tide of battle changed in World War II. A 70th anniversary may not seem particularly important until we realize that by the 80th anniversary, the World War II generation will be gone.
November 1942 saw the tide turn in the European theater, with the Second Battle of El Alamein, fought in Egypt from Oct. 23 to Nov. 7, and El Alamein's strategic compliment, Operation Torch. The Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria began Nov. 8.
That the European war's tide changed in North Africa should surprise no one familiar with the geographic proximity and colonial connections. Tunisia's capital, Tunis, is 260 air miles from Sicily; Benghazi, Libya, 480. In 1939, Egypt was a British client, Libya a colony of Germany's Axis partner, Italy, and France controlled Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. These countries line the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and share the same vast outback, the Sahara Desert.
El Alamein pitted Britain's 8th Army against German Gen. Erwin Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika, better known by its original name, Afrika Korps. Since late 1940, British forces and Axis troops had traded offensives between the Egyptian frontier and central Libya. Afrika Korps arrived in spring 1941.
Throughout 1941, the war seesawed through eastern Libya, with now uncomfortably familiar cities like Benghazi and Tobruk focal objectives. Rommel wanted their seaports, to shorten his supply line. He had targets beyond Libya. He intended to drive his tanks through Egypt and seize the Suez Canal. Fantasists in Berlin thought Rommel might continue on toward Iran and its oil fields.
Rommel's 1942 offensive ripped through Libya into Egypt. In July, the British defense at First El Alamein prevented Afrika Korps from seizing Alexandria. A World War I-like stalemate of minefields developed. Rommel could not flank El Alamein's bottleneck. The sea anchored its north flank. The Qattara Depression restricted any swing to the south.
In August, Gen. Bernard Montgomery took command of a demoralized 8th Army. As the stalemate continued, Rommel's supply situation deteriorated. Montgomery prepared for a decisive offensive battle. The October phases of Second El Alamein would pin then shatter Italian infantry; confuse then smash Rommel's tanks. By Nov. 2, British forces had penetrated the Axis lines. Isolated units surrendered. On Nov. 4, British armor hit open desert. Rommel's troops began a long retreat through Libya, with Tunisia 1943 their last African stand.
Tunisia was where the allied strategic trap closed on the Axis forces. The Anglo-American forces of Operation Torch had marched east from their Moroccan and Algerian invasion beaches. Torch gave the raw American Army hard but useful combat experience. An untested general, Dwight Eisenhower, commanded the operation. A proven warhorse, George Patton, commanded the unit invading Morocco.
Torch also demonstrated an impressive American strategic audacity, one 70 years has refined and extended. The troop convoys carrying the Moroccan invasion force assembled along the U.S. East Coast, and then went nonstop to Africa. America had the confidence, and equipment, to launch an intercontinental amphibious assault.
The U.S. attack on Algeria included a parachute infantry assault launched from bases in Britain, 1,600 miles away. The paratroopers' planes scattered en route, their drop went awry, but the failed gamble provided an education in complex modern combat operations.
Winston Churchill recognized Second El Alamein's significance. Adolf Hitler's Nazi war machine had been dealt a military defeat of immense consequence. Eventually, the Axis would quit the continent. Their Big Lie propagandists could not mask a continent's loss.
Churchill understood Torch's strategic implications. Moreover, on the Eastern Front, the Russians had the Nazis bogged in a grinding battle of attrition: Stalingrad. El Alamein, however, was a victory for his Britain, the nation that had stood alone against Hitler. Assessing 8th Army's Egyptian victory, on Nov. 10, 1942, Churchill said, "This is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
For Sir Winston, the long road to Berlin began at El Alamein.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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