The Sands Of El Alamein: Gearing Up For The FoW Boot Camp [Part One]

February 13, 2017 by crew

Ever since Beasts of War announced the boot camp they’ll be hosting for Flames of War 4th Edition, a discussion has been picking up across the site about the North African theatre of World War II. Small wonder, since the models we’ll be using at the event will be featured in the “Rommel’s Afrika Korps” and “Monty’s Desert Rats” Starter Kits.

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That said, the Desert War was one of the longest and far-ranging campaigns of World War II. So what slice of the Desert War will we be dealing with at the boot camp? As part of the ramp-up for the event, I’ve been asked to present some context on the specific setting and timeframes for the battles we’ll have on our tables.

The Battles for El Alamein

July-November, 1942

Put most generally, the games we’ll be playing at the Flames of War 4th Edition boot camp will be set during the Battles of El Alamein, which ran from July to November 1942. This is the time period when most of the equipment that players will have in their starter sets was widely available to the historical armies in question.

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This also makes sense since Battlefront is rolling out an “El Alamein Battle Box” as part of their 4th Edition release. Furthermore, El Alamein is by far the most famous part of the Desert War, when everyone’s favourite vehicles and equipment were in use. In short, it’s a great starting point for a new release.

Now this series won’t feature any table top games since our games won’t take place until the boot camp. Instead, we hope to provide a primer on El Alamein, sketching out the battle’s general outline, profiling its commanders, comparing weapons and equipment, and highlighting some key features encountered by the men on the ground.

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In so doing, we’re aiming to provide some background to the boot camp experience. How do the tactics, pieces, and strategies on our tables measure up against those on the actual battlefield? What did these battles mean in the larger picture? Most importantly of all, we hope to crank up the excitement as the boot camp event draws near!

The Desert War

General Background

In 2015 we ran a five-part article series on the Desert War in its entirety, so I won’t belabour the reader with another long chronicle of every battle and campaign. For those that are interested, the original series is linked below. But for our El Alamein discussion, we’ll summarise the Desert War so far in the broadest of strokes.

The Desert War started over two years before El Alamein, in the summer of 1940. France was in mid-collapse, and Great Britain looked as if it might fall as well. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini believed the war was about to end in an Axis sweep and wanted to make sure his country got a share of the spoils.

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One easy target for Mussolini seemed to be the British, with holdings and garrisons in East Africa and Egypt. After taking the British portion of what is today Somalia and attacking the Sudan, the Italians next targeted Egypt. In September 1940, their 10th Army (200,000+ men) invaded Egypt from the Italian colony of Libya.

However, the British garrison in Egypt (the WDF, or Western Desert Force) was not about to let Egypt fall. Despite numbering just 30,000, they launched a counterattack in December 1940 that not only threw the Italians out of Egypt, but took half of Libya as well. By the spring of 1941, it looked as if the Italians might lose it all in North Africa.

Feeling compelled to help his faltering Italian ally, Hitler sent a general and a handful of incomplete divisions to bolster the Italian defence. The general, of course, was Erwin Rommel, and the few thousand men (just a few reinforced regimental battlegroups at first) was the beginning of the Afrika Korps.

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Before the Afrika Korps was even full landed at the port of Tripoli, Rommel struck (despite orders to remain on the defensive). He quickly expelled the British out of Libya and drove them back into Egypt. The Allied-held port of Tobruk was cut off and subjected to a siege that would last nearly a year. The legend of the “Desert Fox” was born.

A succession of British commanders tried to deal with the Rommel, hoping to throw him back into Libya and relieve the besieged defenders of Tobruk. General Wavell tried and failed with Operation Battleaxe in the summer of 1941, while his successor Claude Auchinleck had better luck (temporarily) with Operation “Crusader” in the fall.

Rommel, however, recovered quickly from this setback. In early 1942 he launched his most audacious and successful desert offensive yet, the Gazala Offensive. Yet again he and his Italian allies plunged into Egypt, and while Tobruk had held out for nine months last time, this time it fell in a matter of hours.

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This time the British were thrown back deep into Egypt. They tried to mount a stand at Mersa Metruh, and quickly crumbled. Falling back further, they set up a new position near a remote railroad town called El Alamein. This was just sixty-five miles west of Alexandria…with Cairo, the Nile, and the Suez Canal just behind.

But while El Alamein may have been the last defensive position before the “prizes of Egypt,” at least it was a solid place to make a stand. The coastline bends down from the north, and from the south yawns the Qattara Depression, 650 feet deep in places, a vast impassable salt marsh where no mechanised army can travel.

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In short, El Alamein was a bottleneck. In place of the typical open desert, the British had a rocky corridor only about forty miles wide, hemmed from the north by the Mediterranean Coast and from the south by the Qattara Depression. At last, the British had a position Rommel could not outflank.

El Alamein – Facing Off

Setting The Stage

Units began to gather at El Alamein, facing off as reinforcements steadily stacked up. Both sides realised they faced incredible opportunities and immense obstacles. Many times in history, the importance of a given time or place isn’t apparent until years later. But here, both sides knew that one way or another, the war was about to change.

On the Axis side, Rommel never stood so close to absolute victory in North Africa as where he stood right now. One more smashing victory and Alexandria would be his, with Cairo, the Nile, and possibly the Suez Canal right after that. His men were tough, confident, and eager, while the British seemed to regard him almost as invincible.

However, Rommel’s forces were also deep in enemy territory. Bringing up supplies or reinforcements from ports like Benghazi and Tripoli, thousands of miles away, was a nightmare. The panzers were breaking down, the men were exhausted and sick with tropical diseases. Rommel’s “Panzerarmee Afrika” was a shadow of its former self.

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As for the British, their army seemed in danger of falling apart. Six commanders had come and gone after a string of disastrous defeats, and the men had lost all confidence that any commander could actually beat “the Desert Fox.” And their backs were to the wall, one more retreat and Rommel would be in Alexandria.

However, the Allies also had massive advantages. Auchinleck had picked a masterful place to fight. Time and again Rommel had beaten the Allies by turning the “desert flank,” but here there was no desert flank because of the Qattara Depression. Rommel would have to make a frontal attack.

The Allies had also hurled themselves into immense preparations. They laid millions of mines, built fortified “brigade boxes” everywhere. They absorbed thousands of reinforcements. New American tanks would be arriving like the Grant and the Sherman. Supplies were plentiful, and they were steadily winning control of the sky.

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Rommel’s only real chance was to hit and crack the “Alamein Line” before it had a chance to fully settle in place. On July 1st, 1942, he tried exactly that with a shove against the southern end of the Allied line. But his assault (started three hours late) almost instantly degenerated into an absolute disaster.

South Africans slammed the German 90th Light Division to a halt, who could only disengage under cover of a sandstorm. When the storm lifted they were hit on three sides by the British 1st Armoured Division. Only when Rommel himself showed up was 90th Light prevented from falling into a complete rout.

But soon Rommel himself was pinned down, it took a Stuka air strike to break him loose. Meanwhile, the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions ran into the 18th Indian Brigade. Badly outnumbered, the brave Indians were overrun, but in the process positively mauled Rommel’s only two real tank units, and wrecked most of their irreplaceable panzers.

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Rommel tried again on July 2nd, then shifted his assault to the northern coastal road on July 3rd. All were failures. Clearly, Claude Auchinleck was ready for the Desert Fox this time. After that, Rommel had no choice but to settle into the defensive and await reinforcements. But with his supply bases a thousand miles behind him …

Of course, we’re just getting started. In next week’s continuation, we’ll start looking at some of the further battles around El Alamein, where the famous Bernard Montgomery finally arrives on the scene. We’ll also start comparing arms and armour and look at how some of the rules of the game reflect the conditions of this desert battlefield.

We hope you like our look at El Alamein so far. More importantly, we hope you’re getting fired up for the upcoming boot camp, whether you’re attending in person or plan to participate via Beasts of War’s live blog coverage! Either way, drop your comments below and keep the conversation going!

James Johnson

If you would like to write an article for Beasts of War then please contact me at ben@beastsofwar.com for more information!

"...we’re aiming to provide some background to the boot camp experience. How do the tactics, pieces, and strategies on our tables measure up against those on the actual battlefield?"

"...we’ll start looking at some of the further battles around El Alamein, where the famous Bernard Montgomery finally arrives on the scene"