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The Campaign for North Africa

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Essay title: The Campaign for North Africa

The Campaign for North Africa: The Battle of El Alamein ranks both "Strategically and psychologically, as a decisive battle of World War II. It initiated the Axis decline. The victory saved the Suez Canal, and was a curtain-raiser for the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa 4 days later, and was a prelude to the debacle of Stalingrad. Allied morale soared, particularly in the British Empire, proud to have at long last a victorious army and general; Axis morale correspondingly dipped. Hitler's order that Rommel should stand fast contributed to the ruin of Rommel's army." El Alamein appears to be nothing but an inconsequential village; an insignificant waypoint across the barren desert landscape of North Africa. Yet, the seemingly irrelevant piece of land would come to witness the single greatest battle of the North African campaign??a battle that ranks among the greatest of World War II.

The time is 1942- the past two years have seen the advance of Axis powers across North Africa. Allied forces suffered loss after loss as the Germans and Italians pushed easterly towards the jewel of North Africa: Egypt. Egypt marked the gateway to the rich oil resources of the Middle East??if Field Marshall Rommel, Commander of Panzerarmee Afrika, could destroy the Allied forces, Egypt would be in Hitler's hands. The oil resources of the Middle East were of particular importance to Hitler, whose supplies were dwindling. They were so desperate for oil that as well as influencing their tactical decisions, "the Germans were having to eke out their stockpile by producing fuel synthetically from coal. If the Nazi's could seize control of the great oil reservoirs of Iraq and Iran, the balance could shift overnight." Oil was not the only prize for an Axis victory, however. Conquering Egypt would separate Britain's direct sea line to India. Because the Suez Canal was so strateg! ically important, "Japan, victorious in southeast Asia, could conceivably join forces with a German army in control of the Middle East. Indeed, victory here and now might well decide the whole war." The consequences of a German-Japanese controlled Middle East were ominous: Axis forces could conceivably outflank the Russians and heartily defeat them. El Alamein is located 50 miles west of Alexandria, on the coastal railway of Mersa Matruh(Correlli 1964, 55). El Alamein marks the northern boundary of the 40-mile wide corridor through the Western Desert to Cairo. The southern boundary of the corridor is Qarat al Himeimat. South of Qarat al Himeimat lays the Qattara Depression, a salt marsh 400 feet below sea level that stretches southwesterly towards Siwa for 200 miles. Stretching south and west from Siwa is the Great Sand Sea, filled with dunes that make it virtually impassible. The areas unusual topography made for a bottleneck effect: most experts thought El Alamein to be the ! last defendable place in the Western Desert(Carver 1962, 99). Indeed, west of Alamein, the desert opens up and is highly trafficable.

The weather of the Western Desert is what one would expect: daytime temperatures are extremely high, but nighttime temperatures are as low as fifty degrees. The intense heat of the afternoon causes mirages and therefore, makes reconnaissance inaccurate or impossible. Sandstorms are common, usually springing up about an hour before sundown. The lack of significant landmarks, combined with the absence of light, made navigation extremely difficult and was known to cause disorientation and fear. It is relevant to note here, that the soldiers who participated in the North African campaign were rationed 1 gallon of water a day. This water was to be used for cooking, cleaning, vehicles, and what was left was for drinking(Phillips 1962 120). Supply played an essential role in the battle. The Axis powers' supply route went from Sicily or Italy to the main base in Tripoli with little resistance from the Royal Navy. The Axis forces, however, were at a disadvantage as they moved wester! ly across the desert: El Alamein was 1,400 miles from their main base. The length of the supply route began to cause logistical problems and influenced Rommel's tactical decisions. For instance, Rommel knew that until he had sufficient gasoline and supply caches, he would have to remain on the defensive, which entailed that he not use the sweeping flanking manuevers which had made him successful. On October 23, 1942, the Axis had available 104,000 soldiers, 489 tanks, 1219 guns, and 198 planes(Montgomery 202). This equaled eight infantry and four armored divisions. Fuel, ammunition, and other supplies were extremely short. Additionally, the Axis powers lacked any forces capable of intervening. Hitler was concurrently deeply committed in Russia and would not commit additional forces in Egypt. The Allied

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