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El Alamein: The British Empire’s Last Hurrah

Oct. 25, 2017 After the opening of the Suez Canal, control of the Mediterranean became an obsession for the British.

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By George Friedman

The Second Battle of El Alamein began on Oct. 23, 1942, 75 years ago, and ended less than a month later. It was preceded by just a few months by the First Battle of El Alamein, fought in Egypt without a decisive winner. The second battle didn’t end the North African Campaign of World War II, in which Allied and Axis powers competed for control of the region, but it made a German victory impossible. Like Midway, Guadalcanal and Stalingrad – the other battles that closed the door on an Axis victory – El Alamein was a strategic win for the Allies, and it defined the rest of the war.

The origin of the North African Campaign was odd. It was a desert war about the Mediterranean that pitted Italian and German forces against British and Australian forces. Britain was a small island that could not, by itself, sustain its domestic life and wage a war against the Germans. It depended on its colonies, particularly India, for raw materials and food. The historic route to India ran past the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and through the Indian Ocean. It was a long and difficult journey. The construction of the Suez Canal provided a much shorter route, allowing more cargo to be transported on the same number of merchant ships.

The British had always had an interest in the Mediterranean, but after the opening of the Suez Canal, it became an obsession. The British had seized Gibraltar, the western entry to the Mediterranean, from Spain centuries before. The canal gave the Mediterranean an eastern exit, thus making control of the Mediterranean the key to controlling the Indian Ocean Basin, from South Africa to Singapore and the Pacific.

With France’s defeat in World War II, Britain faced a number of problems. It had to be prepared for a possible German invasion. But it also had to maintain its empire, which gave it the status of a global power. That meant controlling Gibraltar and the Suez. By 1941, all of southern Europe was either ruled by or allied with Germany. The Mediterranean was still unsettled, particularly after the Italians invaded North Africa, to be joined by the Germans.

A picture taken on Oct. 21, 2017 shows the Allied tombstones at El Alamein War Cemetary on the 75th anniversary of the pivotal World War II battle, in the Egyptian Mediterranean town of the same name about 62 miles west of Alexandria. KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Germans had expected to reach a peace agreement with Britain after the fall of France and had offered a deal by which Britain would retain its empire and its command of the sea lanes. In return, it would allow Germany to control the European Peninsula. But Britain feared that Germany, with control of the French and Italian fleets and free to use European resources for a massive ship-building program, would be able to wrest the oceans and the empire away from Britain within a generation. Britain turned down the offer.

The Germans could not invade Britain because their navy could not control the English Channel. The deal the Germans offered could not be guaranteed in the long run. The British calculated that in due course the U.S. would enter the war either by choice or by enemy action. So they waited. They held their position and fought to keep the Atlantic open against German U-boats in order to access their empire and North America.

Taking the Suez

There was one place where waiting was not an option. The British had to retain the Mediterranean to keep Gibraltar and Suez open. For the Germans, there was a tremendous opportunity in the Mediterranean. If they could close either Gibraltar or Suez, the line of supply for Britain would be made far longer and become untenable. The Germans tried to persuade the Spanish to enter the war, but they refused. Gibraltar could not be taken. But the Suez might be.

Germany already held Greece, and if it could take Suez, it would hold Egypt too. This would create other opportunities for the Germans. Crossing the Sinai Peninsula, they would be able to strike northward through Palestine and potentially northeastward to take the British oil fields in Iraq and control the Persian Gulf. It would present massive logistical problems, but it was not completely out of the question because there was no significant military force in the Germans’ path.

The problem the Germans had was the Soviet Union. The partition of Poland had moved the Soviets 300 miles closer to Berlin. The Soviets’ potential power was enormous, and Germany had to assume that the Soviets would attack when they were strong enough. Germany therefore had to attack the Soviets before the Soviets could attack Germany. But this would limit the resources Germany could devote to North Africa.

The Germans made a classic compromise: They made war on both. Worse for the Germans, while the bulk of their force was devoted to the Soviet Union, they divided that force into three separate thrusts. First, they wanted to rapidly seize Moscow and leave the Soviets rudderless. Second, they tried to attack in the south to seize Baku in present-day Azerbaijan – the location of one of the richest oil supplies in the world and the only significant supply the Soviets had. The southern thrust would have crippled the Soviet economy and given the Germans a badly needed source of oil. Hitler also tried to take Leningrad. He failed in all three of these campaigns.

He also failed in North Africa, a consequence of the decision to attack the Soviets as he had. Although the British were hard pressed, they were not broken by the forces of Erwin Rommel, Germany’s field marshal. A significant increase in German forces would have taken Alexandria, Cairo and the canal. A subsequent attack north toward Turkey might well have brought the Turks into the war. It might have convinced Spain to take Gibraltar. It might also have forced Britain to sue for peace. (These “mights” may seem speculative, but I believe the probability of at least one of these things happening was extremely high.)

Redirecting German resources could have made the difference. At that point, a simultaneous drive on Baku from the southwest, with an all-hands thrust through southern Russia, would have cut Soviet oil supply and brought its industry grinding to a halt. In other words, North Africa was not only key for knocking Britain out of the war, but also a significant element of getting the Soviets to capitulate. The failure to understand the significance of Suez in the broader strategic picture, and to concentrate efforts on the Soviets’ industrial base, its oil, was the point at which Germany lost the war.

Poor Intelligence

Why did Hitler not see this? He had terrible intelligence on the Soviets and was stunned by the reserves they produced. He also had terrible intelligence on Britain. He believed that Winston Churchill would be overthrown if he didn’t make peace. He could have been fed false intelligence, misinterpreted good intelligence, or simply never received the intelligence needed to make war. Interestingly, his head of eastern intelligence, Reinhard Gehlen, wound up working for the Americans immediately after the war while the Soviets were consolidating their control in the east.

Rommel could not reach Suez for logistical reasons. The farther east he went from Tobruk, Libya, the scanter supplies were. The farther British forces were from Alexandria, the scanter their supplies were. As configured, there was no way either side could win. But Hitler still had a chance to reconfigure his strategy.

That option ended on Nov. 8, four days after British field marshal Bernard Montgomery defeated Rommel and forced him to retreat. The United States invaded North Africa in Operation Torch, taking Morocco, passing through Gibraltar at night to land in Algeria and engaging French troops loyal to Vichy. This battle made it clear that Rommel had no future in North Africa.

By now, the Battle of Stalingrad was taking shape, and Hitler’s attempt to take Baku from the north was in shambles. He had little time to worry about the heart of the matter, the Suez Canal. The U.S. used the invasion to familiarize its troops with war, and Rommel took advantage at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. But the war in North Africa was effectively over. And the Third Reich was essentially finished, even though many more still had to die before the war was officially over.

If Rommel had reached Cairo and the Suez Canal, history would have been different. But he didn’t. El Alamein, a miserable place covering an area of 50 miles between the sea and an impassable depression in the desert, was the last moment the British waged a major campaign in this war or any other war by themselves (except for the Falklands). From then on, the British fought with the Americans and in many cases under their command. Their former colony had become the elder brother, and with that, the empire melted away.

El Alamein was the last hurrah for Britain as a country able to wage war on its own, and it was a great last hurrah. But without Torch, and Hitler’s deficient decision making, it could have ended badly.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this report mistakenly stated that Germany had gained control of Cyprus.