World War II: First Battle of El Alamein

British field artillery firing on German tanks in the desert

Imperial War Museums / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The First Battle of El Alamein was fought July 1-27, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945). Having been badly defeated by Axis forces at Gazala in June 1942, the British Eighth Army retreated east into Egypt and assumed a defensive position near El Alamein. Pursued by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the British constructed an elaborate array of defenses. Commencing attacks on July 1, Axis forces proved unable to break through Eighth Army. Subsequent British counterattacks failed to dislodge the enemy and by late July a stalemate ensued. In the wake of the fighting, command of Eighth Army passed to Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery who would lead it to victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein that fall.

Fast Facts: First Battle of El Alamein

  • Conflict: World War II (1939-1945)
  • Dates: July 1-27, 1942
  • Armies & Commanders:
    • Allies
      • General Claude Auchinleck
      • approx. 150,000 men
    • Axis
      • Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
      • approx. 96,000 men
  • Casualties:
    • Axis: approx. 10,000 killed and wounded, 7,000 captured
    • Allies: approx. 13,250 casualties


Following its crushing defeat at the Battle of Gazala in June 1942, the British Eighth Army retreated east towards Egypt. Reaching the border, its commander, Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie, elected not to make a stand but to continue falling back to Mersa Matruh approximately 100 miles to the east. Establishing a defensive position based on fortified "boxes" that were linked by minefields, Ritchie prepared to receive Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's approaching forces.

On June 25, Ritchie was relieved as the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Command, General Claude Auchinleck, elected to take personal control Eighth Army. Concerned that the Mersa Matruh line could be outflanked to the south, Auchinleck decided to retreat another 100 miles east to El Alamein.

Claude Auchinleck
General Claude Auchinleck.  Public Domain

Auchinleck Digs In

Though it meant conceding additional territory, Auchinleck felt El Alamein presented a stronger position as his left flank could be anchored on the impassable Qattara Depression. The withdrawal to this new line was somewhat disorganized by rearguard actions at Mersa Matruh and Fuka between June 26-28. To hold the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the depression, Eighth Army constructed three large boxes with the first and strongest centered on El Alamein on the coast.

The next was situated 20 miles south at Bab el Qattara, just southwest of Ruweisat Ridge, while the third was located on the edge of the Qattara Depression at Naq Abu Dweis. The distance between the boxes was connected by minefields and barbed wire. Deploying to the new line, Auchinleck placed XXX Corps on the coast while the New Zealand 2nd and Indian 5th Divisions from XIII Corps were deployed inland. To the rear, he held the battered remnants of the 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions in reserve.

It was Auchinleck's goal to funnel Axis attacks between the boxes where their flanks could be assaulted by the mobile reserve. Pushing east, Rommel increasingly began to suffer from severe supply shortages. Though the El Alamein position was strong, he hoped that the momentum of his advance would see him reach Alexandria. This view was shared by several in the British rear as many began preparing to defend Alexandria and Cairo as well as readied for a retreat further east.

Rommel Strikes

Approaching El Alamein, Rommel ordered the German 90th Light, 15th Panzer, and 21st Panzer Divisions to attack between the coast and Deir el Abyad. While the 90th Light was to drive forward before turning north to cut the coast road, the panzers were to swing south into the rear of XIII Corps. In the north, an Italian division was to support the 90th Light by attacking El Alamein, while in the south the Italian XX Corps was to move behind the panzers and eliminate the Qattara box.

Rolling forward at 3:00 AM on July 1, the 90th Light advanced too far north and became in entangled in the 1st South African Division's (XXX Corps) defenses. Their compatriots in the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions were delayed getting started by a sandstorm and soon came under heavy air attack. Finally advancing, the panzers soon encountered heavy resistance from the 18th Indian Infantry Brigade near Deir el Shein. Mounting a tenacious defense, the Indians held through the day allowing Auchinleck to shift forces to the western end of Ruweisat Ridge.

Along the coast, the 90th Light was able to resume their advance but was stopped by South African artillery and forced to halt. On July 2, the 90th Light attempted to renew their advance but to no avail. In an effort to cut the coast road, Rommel directed the panzers to attack east towards Ruweisat Ridge before turning north. Supported by the Desert Air Force, ad hoc British formations succeeded in holding the ridge despite strong German efforts. The next two days saw German and Italian troops unsuccessfully continue their offensive while also turning back a counterattack by the New Zealanders.

First Battle of El Alamein
July 12, 1942 - 25-pounder guns of the 2/8th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, in action on the coastal sector near El Alamein, Egypt.  Public Domain

Auchinleck Hits Back

With his men exhausted and his panzer strength badly depleted, Rommel elected to end his offensive. Pausing, he hoped to reinforce and resupply before attacking again. Across the lines, Auchinleck's command was bolstered by the arrival of the 9th Australian Division and two Indian Infantry Brigades. Seeking to take the initiative, Auchinleck directed XXX Corps commander Lieutenant General William Ramsden to strike west against Tel el Eisa and Tel el Makh Khad using the 9th Australian and 1st South African Divisions respectively.

Supported by British armor, both divisions made their attacks on July 10. In two days of fighting, they succeeded in capturing their objectives and turned back numerous German counterattacks through July 16. With German forces pulled north, Auchinleck commenced Operation Bacon on July 14. This saw the New Zealanders and Indian 5th Infantry Brigade strike the Italian Pavia and Brescia Divisions at Ruweisat Ridge.

Attacking, they made gains on the ridge in three days of fighting and turned back substantial counterattacks from elements of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions. As fighting began to quiet, Auchinleck directed the Australians and the 44th Royal Tank Regiment to attack Miteirya Ridge in the north to relieve pressure on Ruweisat. Striking early on July 17, they inflicted heavy losses on the Italian Trento and Trieste Divisions before being forced back by German armor.

Final Efforts

Utilizing his short supply lines, Auchinleck was able to build a 2-to-1 advantage in armor. Seeking to utilize this advantage, he planned to renew the fighting at Ruweisat on July 21. While Indian forces were to attack west along the ridge, the New Zealanders were to strike towards the El Mreir depression. Their combined effort was to open a gap through which the 2nd and 23rd Armoured Brigades could strike.

Advancing to El Mreir, the New Zealanders were left exposed when their tank support failed to arrive. Counterattacked by German armor, they were overrun. The Indians fared somewhat better in that they captured the western end of the ridge but were unable to take Deir el Shein. Elsewhere, the 23rd Armoured Brigade took heavy losses after becoming mired in a minefield. To the north, the Australians renewed their efforts around Tel el Eisa and Tel el Makh Khad on July 22. Both objectives fell in heavy fighting.

Eager to destroy Rommel, Auchinleck conceived Operation Manhood which called for additional attacks in the north. Reinforcing XXX Corps, he intended for it to break through at Miteirya before proceeding to Deir el Dhib and El Wishka with the goal of cutting Rommel's supply lines. Moving forward on the night of July 26/27, the complex plan, which called for opening several routes through minefields, quickly began to fall apart. Though some gains were made, they were quickly lost to German counterattacks.


Having failed to destroy Rommel, Auchinleck ended offensive operations on July 31 and began digging in and fortifying his position against an expected Axis assault. Though a stalemate, Auchinleck had won an important strategic victory in halting Rommel's advance east. Despite his efforts, he was relieved in August and replaced as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Command by General Sir Harold Alexander.

General Sir Harold Alexander. Public Domain 

Command of Eighth Army ultimately passed to Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery. Attacking in late August, Rommel was repulsed at the Battle of Alam Halfa. With his forces spent, he switched to the defensive. After building Eighth Army's strength, Montgomery commenced the Second Battle of El Alamein in late October. Shattering Rommel's lines, he sent Axis forced reeling west.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: First Battle of El Alamein." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: First Battle of El Alamein. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: First Battle of El Alamein." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).