South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 11 September 2008 was Col Lionel Crook whose topic was the Battle of Alam El Halfa. Col Crook introduced his talk by describing the four key players in the story of the battle: General Sir Claude Auchinleck, General B L Montgomery, Sir Winston Churchill and Field-Marshall Erwin Rommel.

General Auchinleck was born in Northern Ireland in 1884 and educated at Wellington and the Royal Military College Sandhurst before being commissioned into the Indian Army in 1903. During the First World War he served in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Kurdistan. For these services he was promoted to the brevet rank of Lieutenant Colonel and awarded the DSO, OBE and French Croix de Guerre. He served in India until the Second World War when he returned to England to commission the Second Allied Expeditionary Force sent to Narvik in Norway. When he returned to England he was appointed GOC Southern Command before returning to India as Commander-in-Chief Middle East. Col Crook pointed out that Gen Auchinleck refused to leave his enormous command to return to England for meetings with Mr Churchill and thus incurred the latter's displeasure. Although Gen Auchinleck had stopped the Afrika Korps at El Alamein, Mr Churchill decided to replace him with General Gott who was worn out and had suggested to Gen Sir Allen Brooke that someone with new ideas was needed. However, Gen Gott was killed in an air crash before he could take over the 8th army.

Lt Gen Bernard Montgomery was then appointed to relieve Auchinlek. He was educated at St Paul's School and the RMA Sandhurst and had served with distinction in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment on the Western Front during the First World War and earned the DSO. Between the wars he had served in Palestine. In 1939-40 he commanded the 3rd Division in France. On his return to England he had clashed with Gen Auchinleck over key personnel poaching.

After stopping Rommel at El Alamein, Gen Auchinleck realised that time was needed to rebuild the Army and replace lost personnel and weapons. Col Crook described the very heavy losses sustained by the SA Artillery at Tobruk. The RDLI which normally had 700 men on strength was reduced to 230 men. He described the Alamein Box defences and pointed out that the pill-box at the extreme end of the line was manned by one bombardier and one rifleman. If the enemy had known this he could well have broken through this weak link in the defences.

Col Crook praised Gen Auchinleck's fighting prowess and ability to correctly guess where Rommel would attack next. The "Auk" had even earned the admiration of the South African, Maj Gen Dan Pienaar, who in general had a poor opinion of British generals. Like his foe Rommel, Auchinleck was subjected to constant political interference, having to weather a barrage of hectoring telegrams and instructions from Prime Minister Churchill throughout late 1941 and the spring and summer of 1942. Churchill constantly sought an offensive from Auchinleck, and was (understandably) downcast at the recent military reverses and was desperate for some sort of British victory before the planned Allied landings in North Africa, Operation Torch, scheduled for November 1942. He badgered Auchinleck immediately after the Eighth Army had all but exhausted itself after the first battle of El Alamein. Churchill and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Gen Alan Brooke, flew to Cairo in early August 1942, to meet Auchinleck.

Col Crook described Mr Churchill's visit to Cairo with Generals Smuts and Gen Alan Brooke and the decision to appoint Gen Alexander as commander-in-Chief Middle East and Gen Montgomery as GOC of the 8th army.

It was during this visit that Mr Churchill declined an offer to address the South African Troops and contented himself with shaking hands with the brigadiers before leaving the desert. Col de Wet du Toit has recorded in his memoirs what a poor impression this made on the South Africans. Gen Auchinleck had also earned the admiration of Rommel for halting the German advance and handling his forces with considerable skill at the first Battle of El Alamein.

Col Crook discussed Gen Montgomery's criticism of Gen Auchinleck's plans to withdraw to the Delta and pointed out that if the 8th Army had been defeated the allies would have lost the war.

Gen Montgomery assumed command of the 8th Army two days prior to the date agreed to by Gen Auchinleck and was extremly critical of his predecessor's arrangements. Col Crook discussed Gen Auchinleck's plans for the battle of Alam El Halfa which were drawn up by Maj Gen Dorman-Smith, and which Gen Montgomery, ironically, accepted in principle.

Col Crook explained that Gen Rommel was an ill man, suffering from chronic stomach trouble, nasal diphtheria and poor circulation, but was forced to remain at his post and was not permitted to withdraw. Many other members of the Afrika Korps were also in poor health because of their inadequate rations.

Rommel was forced to attack at Alam El Halfa because American logistic support was increasing rapidly whereas his own logistic support was so inadequate that he could hardly continue the campaign. The Axis forces had failed to capture Malta and his supply ships carrying petrol were being sunk by British submarines.

Rommel had no ammunition for his captured British 25 pounder guns and no spare parts for captured lorries and trucks. Ultra intelligence reports revealed these deficiencies to the allies. Rommel was promised fuel by Field Marshal Kesselring but never received the quantity required.

Col Crook explained the use of deception measures to deceive the enemy regarding one's own forces' intentions. He mentioned the example of the well-known Col Meinertzhagen who, during the First World War, had pretended to be wounded in a disorderly escape from a Turkish patrol and, ostensibly in his haste, dropped his haversack and other items during the Palestine Campaign. The haversack contained a notebook with fake plans indicating that the main attack was to be at Gaza. This ruse was a complete success. Prior to the battle of Alam El Halfa, Brigadier de Guingand (Gen Montgomery's Chief of Staff) devised a similar ruse - a false 'going' map which showed an area of very soft sand south of Alam El Halfa as "good going". The bloodstained map was left in a blown-up scout car and Maj Gen Von Mellenthin has recorded that it was accepted as authentic and served its purpose.

As the northern and central sectors of the British front were very well fortified, Rommel was forced to advance through the fifteen mile/24 km area between the box held by the New Zealanders on the Alam Nazil Ridge and the Qattara Depression. The attack commenced on the night of 30 August but the British minefields were extensive and most of the Afrika Korps was unable to advance until close on 10:00 the next day when it was subjected to heavy bombing by the Desert Air Force. Two important casualties were Gen Von Bismarck who was killed and Gen Nehring who was wounded. The Chief of Staff, Lt Gen Bayerlein, took over command. Rommel considered breaking off the attack but then decided to continue and made an early turn north advancing on Point 132 on Alam El Halfa Ridge into soft sand.

The Afrika Korps was delayed by air attacks and the late arrival of fuel and ammunition convoys. When the Afrika Korps approached Alam El Halfa it was subjected to heavy fire from the tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade and to guns of its artillery component and the advance was halted. By now the Afrika Korps was so short of fuel that Rommel decided not to try to capture Point 132. That night British bombers continued the attack and the artillery of 13th Corps resumed it the next day.

On 3 September, Rommel decided to withdraw. The British attempted to cut the salient at its narrowest point, but the attack resulted in heavy losses and was abandoned. The Afrika Korps continued to withdraw on 4 and 5 September but no further attempt was made to cut it off and destroy or capture the retreating Axis forces.

Col Crook discussed the controversy regarding this decision. Gen Montgomery maintained that his men were insufficiently trained to carry out the pursuit and that his equipment situation was unsatisfactory. Maj Gen Von Mellenthin described Alam El Halfa as the turning point of the desert war. He records that the Afrika Korps lost 50 tanks, 50 field and anti-tank guns and about 400 other vehicles. The German troops named the Alam El Halfa battle "the Six Day Race" after a popular German cycling event.

Ray Hattingh thanked Col Crook for his fascinating talk and presented him with the usual gift from the Society.



We are always interested in new members. If you know of anyone who might be interested in military history or who is interested in joining the Society, bring them along and suggest to them to join. This is the most effective way of attracting new members, if combined with good speakers! We seem to have had some success in this!

Virtually all members are paid up, with only two outstanding subscriptions. If you have not as yet paid your subscriptions, please do so now. If you are a full member and have not paid, you will not receive your copies of the Military History Journal.

If any member has a speaker or subject that he or she thinks would be of interest to members, please speak to a committee member and let us know.



The African Aerospace and Defence Expo took place at Ysterplaat AFB between 17 and 21 September 2008 and was slighty hampered by rain on some trade days. The weekend displays were marked by sunshine on the Saturday and a light overcast on Sunday, with a very cool breeze blowing on both days, which luckily did not detract from the public's attendance and enthusiasm for the air show, which was not marred by any fatal accidents as in 2006.

The Vice-Chairman recently spoke to the publishers of fellow-member Brig-Gen Dick Lord's latest book, From Fledgling to Eagle. The book will be available towards the end of the month. Due to advance interest shown, this will prove to be another Dick Lord bestseller! The re-release of a previous book of his, Vlamgat (in paperback from the same publisher), is scheduled for the third week of October.

Security Arrangements as the Rosedale Complex: Mention has been made at the previous meeting that revised security measures will be implemented at the Rosedale Complex to safeguard the security of the residents and visitors alike. This will obviously have an impact on the members and visitors attending the monthly meetings of the society. The matter was discussed with Gen John del Monte at the Legion and various options of control were considered. As an interim measure it was decided that members and visitors will sign in at the security gate, stating their name, motor vehicle registration number and destination. As this is a new arrangement, it might lead to a slight congestion of vehicles at the entrance and we would kindly like to ask members/visitors to consider arriving a few minutes earlier than normal so as not to delay the start of the meeting. We kindly ask members/visitors to bear with us as it is in the interest of the inhabitants of the complex, and be considerate thereof - we apologise for any inconvenience that the new security arrangements might likely cause.