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Perhaps the men of the Eighth Army, crawling forward into the Axis minefields at El Alamein, began more than they knew last week.

> Cairo censors allowed correspondents to suggest that the defeat of the Afrika Korps was an indispensable preliminary to invasion of southern Europe.

> R.A.F. bombs on Genoa, Turin, Savona and Milan, smashing Italian industry and shipping (see p. 27), also drove home to the Italian people the warnings in their own press that Italy itself was in danger, that Italians might soon have to fight “on several Mediterranean fronts.”

> German bombers, badly needed though they were in North Africa, swung 500 miles southward to a nominally unimportant Fighting French post. Apparently the Germans had been impressed by reports that Allied forces, including U.S. troops, were assembling in the interior.

> The Vichyfrench at Dakar, receiving Admiral Jean Francois Darlan (see p. 27), still expected Allied invasion by air and sea.

The preparations for battle at El Alamein had been on a scale indicating an effort to retake all of conquered North Africa. They were also preparations for a new kind of battle in the desert.

On the 40-mile line between the Mediterranean and the wild, serrated Qattara Depression, the Germans had a fixed and deeply fortified front. Before and between their positions they had planted many thousands of land mines, barely covered by the sand, in wait for British tanks, artillery, trucks and troops. On the Eighth Army’s side of the line, between the Germans and Alexandria, the British also had permanent fortifications and mines. Patrols from each side constantly wormed into the mine fields, cautiously uncovered the buried boxes of T.N.T., neutralized them with a twist of a screw and threw them aside. But there were always many more.

As Rommel learned when he felt out the British positions in September, El Alamein was no place for the sweeping tank tactics of the open desert. To break either the Axis or the British line, the attacker needed artillery and more artillery, supporting and opening the way for infantry and tanks. Aircraft could—and did—function as flying artillery, but the Eighth Army’s main effort in the preliminary stage was to build up its artillery strength. The Germans presumably did the same thing—with what success, the British were learning this week.

The R.A.F. and the growing U.S. bomber and fighter forces in Egypt concentrated on Rommel’s airdromes for two weeks before the battle opened. In the last four days of preparation, Axis airports and grounded planes were continuously bombed. Result: at the zero hour, the British and U.S. flyers believed that for the first time they had more planes in the air than the Germans had. British, South African, Australian and U.S. flyers worked in perfect coordination; the teamwork between ground and air forces had also improved since the British retreated into Egypt last summer.

The Attack. Friday evening, three hours before the Eighth Army was to move, Lieut. General Bernard Law Montgomery met his key ground and air commanders at the steps of his headquarters-on-wheels. His sunburned face glistened with sweat in the moonlight. Said he: “We have one plan, one idea in mind. There is no army on one hand and air force on the other. We work as a unit.” His Australian

R.A.F. commander, Air Vice Marshal Arthur Coningham, nodded in assent. So did Acting Air Marshal Roy Maxwell Drummond, deputy commander in chief of the R.A.F. in the Middle East.

Montgomery had been incessantly touring his positions, forever popping up in a slouch hat which he had grabbed from the head of a startled Australian infantryman. He had demanded stiff training and stiff discipline from the troops just behind the lines, and he had personally directed every type of night attack, marched with new troops, fired every new gun and tried out every new tank as they arrived. His angular, inquisitive figure was by now familiar to all the units about to attack: the sist Highlanders, veterans of France, now about to get their first action against the Germans since their stand on the Somme in 1940, the desert-tried 50th Division, Aussies, South Africans, Fighting French, Greeks.

A piper skirled a march for the Highlanders in the British front line. Hell broke over El Alamein: from hundreds of hidden positions artillery laid down the heaviest barrage yet seen in the desert. After six hours infantrymen moved toward the Germans’ shattered positions. R.A.F. bombers and fighters attacked with the ground forces. The advance units found their way through their own minefields, marched gingerly into the German fields. Soon lights began to twinkle close to the ground: they were guttering flames in gasoline tins, marking alleys through the German fields for the main body of troops and tanks.

This was a battle that the men on the ground would have to win or lose. Correspondents were allowed to report only that the Eighth Army was strong—infinitely stronger than it was when it broke at Tobruk last June, and only weariness kept the Germans’ goth Light Infantry from marching into Alexandria. The dispatches were more precise about Rommel’s known ground strength: two German tank divisions, two Italian tank divisions, two German infantry divisions (one motorized), about six depleted Italian infantry divisions. Rommel met the first attack with one German and two Italian divisions, held the rest in reserve.

The winner at El Alamein would be, in all probability, the victor of North Africa, for victory could be won only with the destruction of the loser’s main forces. Rather than lose his hope of destroying the Axis forces, Montgomery was undoubtedly prepared to draw back if the Rommel line was too strong. In that event there would be no victor; there would be another stalemate. On the third day of assault the British had neither drawn back nor advanced very far. Nor had General Montgomery seen fit to amend his order of the first day: “Destroy Rommel and his army. We have won the first round—we have beat the enemy to the starting post. Victory should swing our way.”

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