2012 marks the 70th anniversary of the second battle of El Alamein which began on 23rd October 1942 and in which the New Zealanders played a key role.
On 30 August 1942, the Germans attacked where General Montgomery had predicted, at Alam Halfa, and were defeated by a heavy concentration of artillery and air attacks. The 8th Army were now able to prepare their own decisive attack under Montgomery’s command. 195,000 men, 1,900 artillery guns and 1,350 tanks were moved into position to break through the German and Italian defences which consisted of 100,000 men, 1,325 guns and 510 tanks. The plan called for much of the 8th Army, including the New Zealand Division, to crash through the Axis lines on a broad front, 9 kilometres long. This operation would be known as “Lightfoot”.
A huge artillery barrage would open the attack, followed by the infantry advancing to break the defences. Once the holes were created by the infantry, the Allied armour would break out and destroy the Axis tanks in a final climatic battle. On 23rd October 1942, the attack began. Initially successful, it bogged down without completely breaking the Axis lines. The Germans began to mount strong counter-attacks. It appeared that the battle was about to end in stalemate.
Montgomery changed his plan to an attack on a narrow front to punch a hole which the armour could pour through. The New Zealand Division was chosen to work with the British armour to make this breakthrough. This operation was known as “Supercharge”.
On 2nd November 1942 the New Zealanders met heavy opposition but forced a way through the Axis defences, followed by the 9th Armoured Brigade and 10th Armoured Division. The British armoured units were finally able to destroy the German tanks and by nightfall Rommel and his Army were in retreat.
Winston Churchill was elated at this victory and ordered Britain’s church bells to be rung in triumph. He also heaped praise on the New Zealanders who had played a key role in this and previous battles. When Churchill visited the Division in 1943 he had this to say:
“All are filled with gratitude to the people of New Zealand, who have sent this splendid Division to win fame and honours across the oceans.”