Rather than the single, decisive clash of arms that many people imagine, the Battle of El-Alamein consisted of three savage bouts of mechanized warfare separated by relative lulls over a period of five months (July–Nov) in 1942. In the First Battle of El-Alamein, the German Afrika Korps’ advance was stymied by lack of fuel and munitions and stiff Allied resistance organized by General Auchinleck. Once resupplied, however, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was able to press the advantage with 88-millimetre cannons that outranged the Allies’ guns, as well as faster, better-armoured tanks, used with an élan that earned him the title “the Desert Fox”.
In August, General Bernard Montgomery (“Monty”) took over the Allied Eighth Army, vowing that it would retreat no further. He negated his army’s weaknesses by siting its tanks “hull down” in pits with only their gun turrets above ground, protecting them until the Panzers came within range. Aware that the Allies were being resupplied, Rommel attacked the Alam Halfa Ridge in the Second Battle of El-Alamein (Aug 31 to Sept 6). Repulsed with heavy losses and desperately short of fuel, the Afrika Korps withdrew behind a field of five hundred thousand landmines. Monty patiently reorganized his forces, resisting pressure from his superiors to attack until he had amassed one thousand tanks. A stage illusionist, Jasper Maskelyne, concealed them in the desert and constructed fake tank parks as part of an elaborate deception plan to mislead Rommel as to where and when the Eighth Army’s main offensive would occur.
Shortly after nightfall on October 23, Monty launched the Third Battle of El-Alamein with a barrage of 744 guns that was heard in Alexandria. Having cracked the Nazi Enigma code, the Allies knew that Rommel was convalescing in Italy; when the Eighth Army punched a corridor through the minefields of the central front, the Germans were taken unawares. Rommel managed to return two days later, but was obliged to concentrate his mobile units further north, stranding four Italian divisions in the south. The Allies had established a commanding position at Kidney Ridge, from where Monty launched the decisive strike on November 2, leaving Rommel with only 35 operational tanks by the end of the day. On November 5 the Eighth Army broke out and surged westwards; the Afrika Korps fought rearguard actions back through Libya until its inevitable surrender in Tunisia six months later.