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

February 27, 2017 by crew

Through the late summer and fall of 1942, opposing armies have gathered near a remote Egyptian railroad town called El Alamein. For months, they’ve built toward a showdown of mortal inevitability. Now the air lays quiet, as if even the desert knows a historic clash is in the making. When it hits, the war in the desert will never be the same.

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Greetings, Beasts of War, and welcome back to our pre-boot camp article series on Battles of El Alamein. In less than week, a platoon of die-hard backstagers will gather at BoW Studios to be among the first to play Flames of War 4th Edition, in games that will bring the Battles of El Alamein to the 15mm table top as never before.

In Part One we traced (in broad strokes) the paths taken by the opponents of this matchup (Panzerarmee Afrika and the British Eight Army) that have brought them to this fateful bottleneck in the desert. Part Two has compared the armies, commanders, and weapons of both sides, sizing them up for the confrontation to come.

Setting The Stage

May-July 1942

As we saw in Part One, the story of El Alamein begins a few months earlier, with probably the most dazzling victory by General Erwin Rommel (the famed “Desert Fox”). With his Gazala Offensive in May and June 1942, he throws the Allies out of Libya, takes the port of Tobruk, and hurls the Eight Army in chaotic retreat deep into Egypt.

After mounting a disastrous stand as Mersa Metruh, the Allies are thrown back again, this time all the way to El Alamein (just sixty miles from Alexandria). Here, however, the desert becomes quite narrow, thanks to a bend in the coast and a vast dry salt bed called the Qattara Depression. In short, El Alamein is a great defensive position.

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His spearheads trying to consolidate in headlong advance, Rommel gathers part of his force and hits the “Alamein Line” in early July, 1942. This time, however, the Allies are ready for him. South Africans, New Zealanders, and Indians slam the Afrika Korps and other Axis units to a resolute, bloody halt. The stalemate of El Alamein has begun.

Alam Halfa

August-September 1942

The British commander of the Eighth Army, General Claude Auchinleck, hits Rommel’s German and Italian forces in turn with several resolute but piecemeal counterattacks through the middle of July. Soon he is replaced, however, by General Harold Alexander and a new commander for the Eighth Army: Bernard Law Montgomery.

Montgomery is determined on two important things. First, restore the cohesion and fighting confidence of the Eighth Army. Second, NOT to repeat the same mistake previous British commanders have made in the desert by hitting Rommel too soon, which has only left the British open to flanking counterattacks and further defeat.

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Rather, “Monty” just starts building up. New divisions of tanks, including new American lend-lease models like the Grant and soon the Sherman. New artillery vehicles like the M7 “Priest.” More artillery, more infantry, more air power, and hundreds of thousands of mines.

Monty’s patience finally pays off at the end of August, 1942. Starving for fuel, reinforcements, supplies, and above all, water…Rommel desperately attacks the southern shoulder of Monty’s line. Caving in the Allied position and plowing through a deadly minefield, the Afrika Korps turns north behind the Allied line. Has Rommel done it again?

No, he hasn’t. This “turning the southern flank” play has been used once too often, and Monty has seen it coming. In front of the German advance stands Alam Halfa Ridge, where the spearheads of German “Mark IV Special” tanks are engaged by new battalions of M3 “Grant” Lend-Lease tanks.

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Long story short, Rommel’s offensive is pinned down and torn apart in front of Alam Halfa Ridge. Monty has proven himself with his first victory, and what’s left of the Afrika Korps falls back to defensive positions. The Germans will never take the general offensive in Egypt again. But of course Monty now has to throw the Axis OUT of Egypt …

Operation Lightfoot

October 1942

After slamming Rommel to a halt at Alam Halfa, Alexander and Montgomery spend the rest of September and most of October getting ready for an offensive of their own. They are determined to make this assault a decisive one, throwing the Axis not only out of Egypt, but hopefully out of North Africa altogether.

Of course building up for such an massive effort will take time, and there are plenty of Allied leaders who feel Monty and Alexander are taking too long. Some of these people are quite influential, including a famous statesman with a rabid appetite for cigars, fine brandy…and firing British generals with whom he has lost patience.

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However, the “chokepoint” nature of the El Alamein battle space that made it such a great defensive position for the Allies, now works in favour of Rommel. Critically short on fuel, Rommel is forced to adopt a predominantly static defence, including hundreds of thousands of mines. These minefields will prove a critical factor in the battle.

Montgomery finally launches his offensive at 21:40 hours on October 23th, 1943…with a huge artillery barrage that some say was the biggest since 1918. After hitting the Axis rear echelon, these guns start a “marching barrage” through the German and Italian minefields, behind which the Allied infantry and engineers begin to advance.

This is “Operation Lightfoot,” which makes good progress through the Axis minefields for the first half of the night. The attacks starts to bog down, however. By dawn on October 24th, the British are trying to get tanks through the lanes cleared in the minefields, but more mines and German antitank guns are causing massive damage and delays.

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By now it’s clear that the main Allied attack is hitting in the north. Despite the divisionary attack by the 7th Armoured, Rommel is able to transfer the 21st Panzer northward to help stabilize the situation. Losses are terrible and the very last of Rommel’s reserves are committed, but Operation Lightfoot is ground to a halt by October 27th.

Operation Supercharge

November 1942

Nevertheless, Rommel is in serious trouble. Through the battles of late October, he’s been forced time and time and time again to draw more strength from the southern part of his line to meet the threat in the north. The southern line is now a brittle shell, held by immobile, overstretched Italian units and handfuls of German paratroopers.

Even in the north, the “prime” German divisions of the DAK are in dire straits. Fuel is basically gone, robbing the panzers of their precious mobility. But where previous British generals have paused at such junctures, Monty is already prepared to hit the Axis again.

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This second offensive is called Operation Supercharge, beginning the very next day (October 28th). Using the salient of ground gained by Operation Lightfoot as a springboard, Allied divisions strike in new, diverging directions. Like a crowbar jammed into a cracked wall, they use this leverage to pry apart the northern shoulder of the Axis line.

Then, on November 2nd, Supercharge goes into overdrive. After carefully reorganising his divisions, Monty throws the mother of all left jabs not at the Germans, but at the junction of their line with the Italians. Yet even now there is no immediate breakthrough. Italian infantry fight too hard, local German counterattacks are coming too fast.

Numbers, however, ultimately tip the scale. Not just men, tanks, and guns … but fuel, ammunition, food, water. Allied units can just keep fighting, replenished with new ammunition, fuel, and men – while the Afrika Korps is soon down to just thirty running tanks.

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On November 4th, Ritter von Thoma, commander of the Afrika Korps, is captured in a battle that sees the veteran remnants of 15th Panzer Division all but annihilated. Later that day, Rommel knows the situation was hopeless, and orders a general withdrawal. The retreat will not stop until he reaches Tunisia, almost 1,200 miles to the west.

Flames Of War

El Alamein In 15mm

I’ve had the privilege of reviewing some advance materials for Flames of War 4th Edition, and I’ve been looking for rules and considerations included in the game that point specifically to factors in El Alamein. Put another way, how does Flames of War 4th Edition stack up against the history of El Alamein?

Within the constraints imposed on any tabletop miniature wargame, I’d say Flames of War 4th Edition does pretty well at capturing some of the key features of El Alamein. One early highlight for me when in the Desert Terrain page, which begins with: “The terrain of North Africa is far from the flat and empty wastes of popular imagination.”

I couldn’t possibly agree more. Flames of War 4th Edition includes rules for ridges, hills, escarpments, wadis (dry riverbeds), dune hills, rocky hills … all were parts of the El Alamein battlefield. Places like Kidney Ridge, Alam Halfa, Ruweisat Ridge, Dier el Shein, Miteiriya Ridge, Hill 129, Outpost Snipe, all soaked the pages of history in blood.

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Rules for “Short Cover” may also help ambitious players simulate the desert tank tactic of “hull down shielding.” This is where a tank positions itself just behind even the smallest fold in an otherwise flat desert, using the dune as a ramp to present only part of the turret and depressed gun barrel for a target.

Flames of War 4th Edition also seems to do a great job with both providing a framework for the approximation of historically accurate units, while allowing players the freedom to play with the units the like and the minis they have on hand.

One example I found straight away is including both the Crusader II and III. The Crusader II had a 2-pound gun and a three-man turret. The Crusader III squeezed in a bigger 6-pound gun but only fit two men in the turret. Thus the unit card gives the Crusader III a bigger, longer-reaching gun (with the same ROF) but the “Overworked” special rule.

Small examples like this show that the writers of 4th Edition have done a great job with providing just enough historical detail to make “real tactics” work on the table. This encourages players to use and research historical solutions to challenges in the game, all without bogging down play with too much “rivet counting” detail.

I, for one, can’t wait to try out my “Deutsches Afrikakorps” units on a live table at the boot camp!

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I’d like to take this opportunity to “tank” everyone who helped with this series, including my editor @brennon and @lancorz for the amazing work on front page and banner graphics – as well as @warzan and the team at large for letting me publish on Beasts of War.

Most of all, however, thanks to all of you for taking some time to read these articles, and even better, drop a comment below. Does the “desert wind call to you?” Will you be trying out the new 4th Edition Flames of War starter kits, taking on the role of a “Desert Rat” or one of Rommel’s grizzled “Afrika Korps” veterans?

By the time you read this, we’ll be counting down the last days before the BoW Flames of War 4th Edition Boot Camp. I hope to see many of you there, and if you aren’t able to join us in person, PLEASE check out and participate in live blogs being run all weekend. If previous boot camps are any indication, this weekend will be amazing!

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!

"The Germans will never take the general offensive in Egypt again. But of course Monty now has to throw the Axis OUT of Egypt..."

"Within the constraints imposed on any table top miniature wargame, I’d say Flames of War 4th Edition does pretty well at capturing some of the key features of El Alamein..."