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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, October 27, 2019

New Arivals

Before the Second World War El Alamein was little more than a railway halt, during the War it became the furthest the Germans reached into Egypt. The first battle held there had the Allies on the defensive to halt the Germans. As the situation resolved itself with the Germans held in place there was a place called Ruweisat Ridge. This would be the Germans high water mark, and they would never take one pace further into Egypt. The ridge was a bulge into the Allied lines, and so obviously they attempted to reduce it, and tidy up the battlefield, as Monty was prone to calling the act of straightening front lines.
The first attempt, on the 14th of July, had New Zealand and Indian Infantry Divisions attacking the position, with support from the veteran tank crews of the 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades. The plan had the infantry grabbing objectives in a night assault, with the 2nd Brigade then using those advanced positions as a springboard to launch into the German rear, while the 22nd moved up to support the infantry.
At first things looked to be going well. The New Zealander's achieved their initial objectives, although the Indians ran into stiff resistance. The New Zealanders had been forced to bypass several strong-points as well. At this point there was a general failure of communications with the armoured brigades. The scattered strong points also meant that supporting arms were unable to close up to the lead battalions. As the day wore on the tanks moved up, however the 2nd ran into a dense mine field, and being overly cautious due to months of fighting, failed to move up. Meanwhile the 22nd supporting the Indians got embroiled in a bitter tank battle with the Axis forces. This left the New Zealanders exposed and facing increasing pressure with dwindling ammunition and weapons. By the end of battle the Germans had held the position and captured around 700 New Zealand prisoners.
Plans were drawn up for a resumed offensive very quickly. the 23rd Armoured Brigade had only just arrived in Egypt that month, and was not fully constituted. However, two tank regiments the 40th and 46th Royal Tank Regiments, each equipped with Valentines, were rushed to the front. It was hopped that the green troops would be less cautious than the war weary veteran troops. These tank regiments would support an infantry assault on the base of the salient into commonwealth lines, while another regiment and infantry would attack the far side of the bulge.

On the 21st the New Zealanders advanced, starting at 1630 in the afternoon. In an almost identical replay of the first battle, several strong points were bypassed, and the objectives taken. The following day the Germans counter attacked and caused heavy casualties, over running the exposed New Zealanders. The 2nd Armoured Brigade tried to send forth support, however they ran into minefields and the strong points that had been bypassed. To save the failing situation the 23rd Armoured Brigade was brought up and would advance to the rescue on the following day. Thus the 23rd Armoured Brigade was launched into action with just fourteen days in country, on the 23rd of July.
At 0800, the 104 Valentine II's of the 23rd rumbled for,ward at a heady 15mph. First, they had to cross the minefields. Narrow gaps had been cleared, only 30m at most. Soon tanks began to lose their way along the mine free lanes and begin to strike mines. The two tank regiments did, however, push forward. Then they began to take anti-tank fire. One of the guns was the Germany newest weapon that had only just arrived in country.

The wild charge of the 23rd Armoured Brigade was aimed squarely, and entirely accidentally, at the German 104th Panzer-Grenadier regiment. The lead battalion was overrun by the marauding Valentines. However, their anti-tank platoon was still in operation. The platoon was equipped with PAK-36(r) guns, which had only been issued in the May-June period. These guns were originally Russian 76mm M1936 divisional guns, with some modifications. One of these guns was crewed by Gefreiter (Equivalent Lance-corporal/Private First Class) G√ľnter Halm.
Halm had been born in in 1922 in Elze. He had trained as a machinist. He was conscripted in 1941, and after training posted to the Afrika Korps in 1942. Despite the storm of fire he and his comrades were putting down, the horde of British tanks soon closed up, now able to spot his gun they opened fire. A 2-pounder shot struck the gun shield and sprayed shrapnel amongst the crew wounding two. Despite this Halm carried on manning the gun and kept it in action. By the end of the day his gun had knocked out between 9-15 tanks (accounts differ, and the Germans had a habit of over claiming tank kills). For his actions in the face of a wall of Valentines he was awarded an Iron Cross 1st Class, which was later upgraded to a Knights Cross. This made Halm the youngest ever winner of the award. Halm would survive the war dying in 2017.
PAK-36(r) in action in Africa. Later versions would add a muzzle brake and reduce the size of the gun shield.
While the first battle of El Alamein had no territory captured, it had shifted the dynamic of the campaign. The Germans had held but had been battered flat suffering massive losses of men and material. The savage attacks had been conducted hastily by the 8th Army. The Germans were immobilised, stunned, and could no longer attack. Meanwhile, the 8th Army were beginning to prepare for a punch, and this time it would be properly planned. The 8th Army were going to make sure they had a brick in their hand, and the blow would start the fall of the Afrika Korps which would end in Tunisia in May 1943.

Image Credits:
alchetron.com, www.worldwarphotos.info and nzhistory.govt.nz