Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Battle of El-Alamein: Lessons from the past


Image Courtesy of Noclador

Breaking a fortified line is what every soldier fears and a commanders last resort. It means attacking defences head on that are dug in, protected and cannot be outflanked. The enemy is well armed and well prepared and are expecting the attack.

The defender gets to choose the exact ground he wants to defend and he often has time to prepare and maximise his use of weapons. The attackers know that they will take heavy casualties thus the troops must be clear as to why they have been asked to sacrifice themselves. Therefore the most important aspect about breaking into a fortified line is morale. The infantry has to have the drive and morale to get through the obstacles. Otherwise if the attack bogs down they are as good as dead resulting in defeat.

Commanders who initiate to break a fortified line can have a range of objectives; either to simply seize ground, to destroy the enemy army in that position or to break through to begin a different type of battle. Once initiated commanders must seize the initiative and maintain that advantage from the first moment and must not allow their attack to stall or slow. They must keep it moving. They also must be flexible enough to cope with unforeseen problems or exploit unexpected advantages.

Such an example was the Second battle of El-Alamein where the German Field Marshall Rommel - the commander of the Deutsches Afrikakorps had made the allied 8th Army withdraw and setup a FDL at a point adjoining the Qattara depression and the Mediterranean sea. From here the allied 8th Army launched unsuccessful counter attacks at Rommel's africa corps. As a measure of defence Rommel too setup his own FDL facing the allies. This allowed his exhausted troops to regroup before a final assault. Even though he had planned for a regroup, constant allied raids were crippling his supplies across the sea by two thirds. Knowing very well the allies were regrouping with uninterrupted supplies, Rommel decided to breakthrough while the allied buildup was incomplete. However the allies managed to halt the advance at Alam el Halfa ridge. Expecting General Montgomery - the commander of the 8th Army to strike and capitalise on the victory, Rommel dug in a fortified line.

Rommel's frontline was 40 miles long. The desert ahead of the FDL was largely flat and open so any movement can be seen for miles. At the front lay a minefield 5 miles deep covered with barbed wire. This was code named devil's garden. Behind this were the formidable German anti-tank guns in well concealed positions designed to withstand heavy artillery and aerial bombardment. Following classic military doctrine Rommel's defences avoided being linear. Instead it was built to be a defensive web allowing the defender to fight at every direction. Behind this web Rommel concealed his armour to counter any breakthrough of his defences.

Classic military doctrine suggests that attackers need 3:1 ratio against defenders. Against well entrenched positions it jumps to 5:1. At El-Alamein Montgomery had 200000 men, 1000 tanks and 900 aircraft. Against him Rommel had 100000 men, 500 tanks and 350 aircraft. This is in addition to the minefields. In military parlance minefields are known as a combined arms weapon. They are designed to channelise armor and men into predetermined kill zones. To deal with mines the offender has to slow down and that makes him very vulnerable for the enemy. To avoid the enemy counter fire he needs to speed up, but this makes him vulnerable to mines. But this did not deter Montgomery. Despite the heavy odds, he and his men had no other choice. A flank was not available to exploit. From the South was the impassable Qattara depression and from the North was the Mediterranean sea. Montgomery was also not comfortable with the superiority of the force ratio. But he was getting his supplies freely through the Mediterranean whereas Rommel's supplies were successfully intercepted by air strikes. Montgomery also enjoyed the intelligence advantage with Enigma decoding German transmissions.

It is very rare for any commander to have the 3:1 let alone 5:1 force ratio which military theorists consider essential to break a fortified line but it is possible to gather the necessary superiority at least locally by using deception and surprise.

First General Montgomery takes a bold decision to attack the line from the North when his earlier predecessors attempted at the South thereby trapping the enemy against the Mediterranean coast. This was while his deception battleplan set about to convince Rommel that he was indeed following his predecessors and was attacking the South. He positioned dummy trucks and tanks. A dummy oil pipe was built from El-Alamein to the South slowly enough to convince Rommel that the allies will not initiate an assault (on the South) till the pipe was complete. False radio traffic made the German listeners focus on the South. In the North immense efforts were underway to camouflage troops and tank concentrations. The deception was so successful that Rommel left for Germany for medical attention with just a month before Montgomery's D day.

On the approach to D day Montgomery conducted an diversionary attack on the South to pin down half of Rommel's forces. At the north in Operation Lightfoot infantry were tasked with cutting two corridors through the devil's garden. Engineers were to clear a path under the over of artillery for tanks and mark them with white tape and hooded lanterns. The objective of the two tank divisions was to cross the devil's garden by dawn and strike.

On October 23rd 1942 at 2140 hours under the cover of a barrage of 1000 guns, the Allied infantry advanced towards their objectives. The artillery and infantry advanced in a creeping barrage. In military parlance it mean artillery moves 100 yards every 3 minutes with the infantry following. In a creeping barrage coordination has to be precise. At the battle of El-Alamein the 51st Highlanders advanced too fast, running into friendly fire from the allied barrage. Nevertheless Montogomery's initial assault had gained sufficient impetus until the tank divisions were to churn along the route cleared by the engineers. Unfortunately the path cleared by the engineers was only one tank wide. Once the first tanks were hit by 88mm anti-tank weapons, the entire pathway was blocked trapping the tanks within the devil's garden. The gun flashes of the incoming troops made picking up the targets easier for the Germans and battered the bogged down tanks with artillery. As the sun rose the advance faltered. The tanks had failed to clear the minefields and make headway to support the infantry who had crossed the minefields by dawn. Instead of moving on without losing momentum, they were forced to dig in. Within a few hours Montgomery had lost the impetus to Rommel. During the first 48 hours of battle Montgomery lost over 200 tanks and he called off operation Lightfoot.

One of the key requirements in breaking a fortified line is not lose the momentum created by the initial impetus and to be flexible in changing tactics when their plans go wrong or to exploit advantages when they go right. All attacks lose impetus with time. Clausewitz wrote about this as being the Culminating point. The key is to be smart enough to recognise that point, rapidly refuel, rearm and get your men moving again towards the objective or re-plan the assault.

Once Montgomery called off his large scale offensive, he switched to a series of small scale assaults on enemy strongpoints along the defence line code named crumbling. Montgomery was the master of deliberate attack. His crumbling attacks were aimed at getting amongst the enemy and to force the enemy's defensive cohesion to flood away. He also used his force ratio supremacy of the air. He used over 800 bomber sorties and over 2000 fighter bomber sorties each day on pre-identified targets.

With these crumbling attacks, Rommel's forces were pinned down with supplies running out fast, giving Montgomery room to manoeuvre. Trying to assume Montgomery's next move, Rommel moved a large part of his Africa core over to the Mediterranean. But the allies learn this through intelligence intercepts and plans the assault further towards the South than planned. It is code named Supercharge.


Monty's Supercharge Image courtesy of Noclador

By the time - November 2, 1942 - Supercharge is begun, Montogomery has 800 tanks left with plenty of fuel. Rommel was left with only 102 tanks with fuel and ammo critically low. Despite the initial breakthrough as before, Montgomery lost some 200 tanks at the day's end due to heavy resistance and mines. The attrition had however reduced Rommel's tanks to less than a 100 and at breaking point. Once the line was broken, despite Hitler's orders of not to retreat, Rommel orders his men to retreat and take up defensive positions 60miles to the rear to counter the break out stage of the Allied 8th Army.

The Sri Lankan theatre:

If General Montgomery had a stretch of 40 miles to manoeuvre his units deceptively or otherwise, the Sri Lankan battleplanners have only a narrow stretch of only 7 miles to successfully manoeuvre its units. With no available flank - at least on ground - they have to meet the Tamil Tigers head on. The narrow stretch also makes it far more easier for the Tamil Tigers to coordinate their fire support.

With the Tamil Tigers having more than 5 years to perfect their defences along the 7 miles stretch spanning from KILALY to NAGARKOVIL, this front provides the most fortified line in the current Sri Lankan conflict. Like Rommel the Tamil Tigers have tried their best to increase their force ratio using minefields, trenches, camouflaged boobytraps, highly mobile artillery and mortar units which have littered the coastline spanning from KILALY to POONERYN. They have used the minefields successfully as a combined arms weapons, channelising the armour units of the 53 and 55 Divisions to take the path through pre-planned kill zones. The largely open flat area of no man's land means, any troop movement is easily spotted by the Tamil Tigers. On these kill zones the Tamil Tigers on previous occasions were known to employ the box barrage where the artillery/mortar would rain on 3 or 4 barrages forming a box thus trapping troops within. Such a barrage can only be conducted on pre-registered locations and was successfully conducted to trap 1GR and 5VIR during the April 08 offensive. This is the Sri Lankan Devil's Garden.

As my previous briefs have mentioned, the biggest challenge the Sri Lankan forces face in this sector is the neutralisation of the enemy indirect fire support. One method is to conduct suppressive counterfire at targets identified by their trajectories (ie firefinders). The second method is to use close air support by the SLAF using its superior platforms to target mobile artillery/mortar units and the third is to thin out the enemy's limited resources by conducting a multi axis approach. With the Sri Lankan armed forces moving steadily within the KILINOCHCHI district towards the sectors that houses the artillery/mortar units - POONERYN/PARANTHAN/KILALY axis - the Tamil Tigers may be forced to deploy some of its assets which otherwise could be used to halt an advance in the MUHAMALE sector. The effects of this method is already evident since the Tamil Tiger commander who was based at MUHAMALE was known to be appointed in charge of defending the KILINOCHCHI district from the 57 and 58 divisions.

Emulating the crumbling operations of General Montgomery, the 53 and 55 Divisions have been carrying out successful small scale assaults on the Tamil Tiger FDL on a constant basis. The main aim of such attacks is to destabilize the FDL defences causing the cohesion and morale of the defenders to flood away. Further such a series of crumbling operations allows the Sri Lankan battle planners to master their opening game as well as shore up the morale of its soldiers. In addition they have been conducting daily training exercises, honing their coordination and skills.

Just like General Montgomery successfully used his superiority of the air to enhance his force ratio, the SLAF too needs to be taken into consideration for future battles in this sector since it can significantly increase the force ratio of the Sri Lankan armed forces within this sector. The intention of SLAF air strikes are to cause widespread destruction with the aim of depleting target numbers thus reducing the number of forward targets for the infantry to engage. This is particularly important for areas that are out of SLA's artillery range i.e the deep battle space where ammo dumps, transit camps for reinforcements etc are likely to be located. Further it can also reduce the number of fire support assets the Tamil Tigers may have access to.

Lastly the commanders must be skilled enough to recognise the all important Clausewitz's culminating point - the point at which the force is unable to perform well enough to achieve its objective - as well as be flexible with the overall battleplan. The last thing a commander requires is his strike force to stall or slow in the midst of a Devil's garden as happened during April 08 when 55 were ordered to stall till 53 caught up. The only way this culminating point be recognised early on, is through experience and practice. The War Gaming process is important in this aspect since it allows the battle planners to test their operational plans without committing troops thus allowing the planners to determine high pay-off targets, define critical events, rectify any flaws in planning and coordination, synchronize fire support with other battlefield operating systems and gives a rough estimate of the expected casualties.

Breaking a fortified line was always an option of last resort when sacrificing waves of soldiers was a choice commanders couldn't avoid. In the Southern Wanni the armed forces have been breaking fortified line after line till they met the NACHCHIKUDA-AKKARAYANKULAM line. The fact that differentiates this line from the rest of the lines is the one single fact that this line falls perfectly within the defensive umbrella of the Tamil Tiger artillery/mortar units - the same units that have proved anathema to the combi of 53 and 55 Divisions elsewhere since October 2006.

With territory shrinking thus limiting space for manoeuvrability to shoot and scoot and with superior SLAF platforms dedicated to hunt such units prowling day and night, tougher testing times are ahead for these dedicated Kutti Sri Mortar units of the Tamil Tigers. Only time will tell...

PS: To get a better understanding of the battle from a logistics and general strategy point of view, I would highly recommend reading Mr. Bailey's Racing against the clock: The LTTE's logistical gamble


Moshe Dyan said...

another good one.

thanks SF.

Pasan said...

Nice one again. Learning from history is very important as we know what exactly on cards. But, the Sri Lankan scenario is completely different according to my understanding with compared to El-Alamein and the Gulf War with trenches was in action. I don't think we should get panicked over this. We cannot loose our men and machinery like Montgomery's army did. This is the time SLAF should speak with their fire power. We need more MI to locate the tiger artillery and ammo dumps. Let the soldiers hold onto their positions till we decrease their fire power. We all know the tigers are loosing men and armoury day by day and their supplies are cut down.

I think the theories of El-Alamein is perfectly suited for us except for sacrifing men and machinery.

Jaya Wewa !

Shan said...


Nish said...

Nice article.
I have already watched Enzo Monteleone's "El Alamein", but your article persuaded me to watch it again, and I am sure I can 'enjoy' the film this time thanks to your article.
Nevertheless, I must say your analysis are really educating as well as it shows how history is repeating in the war.
Only complain is the frequency of new posts, but hey, its worth the wait, always..
keep-up the good work.

Balaguru said...

Really a good one again from you.
Thank you very much.

I really like your way of explaining things.

You are the only one who praise the enemy as well.

nemesis said...

Thanks LR,

A fine post as always.

Mango said...

An excellent post. Once again the bloggers outdo the print media in SL in analysis. I'm sure the SLA are aware that they must identify and destroy the LTTE's heavy arty. I think its taking far too long to do this. For instance, there should be night-time UAV patrols to detect muzzle flashes from the LTTE's tubes when they fire. Perhaps even using satellite feed from a friendly country.

The LTTE has used its' arty and defensive minefields in a very intelligent way to cause maximum casualties to advancing SLA without risking its' own troops.

Anyway, it looks like your article's been copied without any attribution by Ruwan Weerakoon, a so-called 'defence correspondent' of 'The Bottom Line',


Last week he did this by doing a copying a posting from Defencewire.

E.T. Bailey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
E.T. Bailey said...

Long Ranger and Mango,

I am glad to know a veteran is thinking along the same lines I am. I just wrote an El Alamein article less than a week before you posted this. While my focus was on the LTTE, not the SLA, we are clearly on the same historical page and seeing the same parallels.

This article is a must read for anyone who read my article, which is centered more around logistics and general strategy and not so much around specific battle tactics. It really lets people understand the similarities between the Wanni and North Africa Campaigns.

On a different note, thank you Mango for sharing that Bottom Line link. Thanks to you I have found that they are stealing from my articles as well.


From the second paragraph of "The Army Cuts Off Supply Routes" to the bottom of the page is all me, slightly modified. That's about half of the entire Defense Column.

Long Ranger, how would you go about dealing with this clear copyright infringement? I assume that you have had more dealings with these types than I have. Can these people be reasoned with to give original writers credit or is morality a totally alien concept to them? Would attempting legal action have any real chance of success/be worth the effort?

It also seems that LankaNewspapers, Six Silent Men - LRRP on the web, and gods know how many others have also posted my articles without my knowing. Thankfully, they have at least given credit to my blog, so I am not concerned by their actions the way I am about The Bottom Line.

Constantin Demiris said...

What a coincidence to find the same El-alamein by Bailey and the Ranger, but different aspects of course! Are you two working for the same organisation? Just kiddin!

And et Bailey, keep up the good work. Just added your blog to my favourites.

Mango, Ranger and Bailey,

This plagiarism is quite serious. This weerakoon fellow has basically done a cut paste job on Bailey's article. Thats just day light robbery.

I dont know how you confront such individuals, but emailing the bottomline people with the original links is a good start I guess.

We have to stop these people hijacking such good pieces of work.

What do others suggest?

Shan said...

Mr ET Bailey

i am in publishing and have dealt with some infringements not the same but what i did might help

in our case it was translations without rights and we had the copyright owner/agent write to the publisher. it worked, really did and the books were taken off the shelves.

I suggest you write to the publisher/editor of bottomline showing him the parralels. this will expose him and force him not to plagiarise or at the least will force the guy to credit the original writer.

the week before it was defencewire's material plagiarised.
so some actio is neccassary.

Long-Ranger said...

Mr. Bailey,

Welcome to Sri Lanka, is all I can say where the morality you have mentioned is a complete alien for some. With my priorities being elsewhere, I simply did not have time to be on the look out for individuals who would leech from my portal. So I have not come across anyone who has plagiarised my work. But I am sure it might have cropped up somewhere at least in some form. This is where I depend on my fellow bloggers.

In your case, as Shan and Constantin Demiris said, notifying the bottomline administrators would be a good start. Meanwhile I will try to find out the contact details of the said individual.

It is quite encouraging to see many individuals showing great interest in such briefs, but it is similarly disheartening to see it being plagiarised or leeched for personal benefit.

With you saying, I too made a brief search and came across my briefs too making the rounds of other blogs sans my permission. However, I don't mind my briefs being put up if it is in its original form complimented with a link to my online portal.

Sri Lanka Guardian seems to have posted some of my briefs sans my permission although with acknowledgement.

It would be ideal if they could post a link of my portal as well with every brief they publish. I am sure the administrators are following this portal, so until next time you are excused...:-)

Long-Ranger said...

"I am glad to know a veteran is thinking along the same lines I am. I just wrote an El Alamein article less than a week before you posted this. While my focus was on the LTTE, not the SLA, we are clearly on the same historical page and seeing the same parallels."

The main reason, as with my previous briefs, I tend to inform my fellow blog community of what is down the pipeline with regards to the Sri Lankan conflict. Hence, this brief which primarily centers around the basic strategy of breaking through a devil's garden. It is quite a co-incidence that you too chose the same, but on a logistics point of view. Both the articles well compliments each other, therefore I have linked my brief to yours for a better reader experience. I am sure you don't mind :-)


You are welcome. Even though I have not seen that movie, I believe that movie revolves around the Italian perspective of the battle, more than the German. I hope you will enjoy the movie. :-)


Thank you very much for the heads up. If you could post any more links up of suspected plagiarism, that will be of immense help for me.

moshe dyan, Pasan, shan, balaguru and nemesis, you are all welcome :-)

Take care.

sldf said...

Long Ranger,

Can you please explain why TF2, 56 and even 59 fronts are not gathering momentum as much as 58 and 57 div. Apart from operation and other difficulties don't you think it is better to maintain some what straight line from East coast to West coast? Or it is simply a strategy of battler field commanders?

Long-Ranger said...


It is quite an expansive topic and is certainly worth a complete brief. In a nutshell it would be suffice to say that it is part of the overall strategy. For example, as I've said before in one of my previous briefs, isolating a guerilla force from its popular base is a must in COIN operations. In this Sri Lankan scenario it is quite paramount to make sure the Wanni population gets 'filtered' out of the conflict zone ASAP. In order to do so the primary route they are likely to take i.e the A9 should be free of conflict. It is in this regard that one should consider the motive behind the alleged claymore mine attack targetting a civilian bus.

Hope you get my drift :-)

There are other reasons, which I will reveal in due time.

E.T. Bailey said...


I'm emailing The Bottom Line within the hour. I hope they comply without any hassle. I'm really surprised that they are getting away with such blatant robbery. I mean I'm a nobody from a different hemisphere and am just starting a volunteer column with the Sri Lanka Guardian. I can easily see how they could get away with stealing from me, but DefenceWire is a pretty big deal. I don't see how there has not been action taken against them before.

Long Ranger,

I am completely like you. I'm excited by the idea that I was actually in a printed paper on the other side of the planet, (doesn't the bottom line have a printed paper on Wednesday?) but upset that some jackass is taking credit for my work. Well, mine, and some other guy's work. I doubt the first half of that column was original musings.

I too don't mind (as much) when other sites take my work but give me credit or link to my blog. I have asked that those sites I've found contact me and ask my permission first, but I don't actually expect them to do it. So long as they continue to give me credit though, I'll be alright with it. It is the fact that another individual is claiming my work as his own that ticks me off.

Sri Lanka Guardian apparently has been taking my work since around June and I was only made aware of it a few weeks ago. However, I was not upset because they did put my name on my own work and now I have my own little column right up at the top of the site. I feel excited to be contributing there. At The Bottom Line, I just feel embarrassed to have been cheated by them, sans the whole being in an actual newspaper thing.

I don't mind in the slightest. In fact, I think I'll do the same on my blog in just a minute.

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Anonymous said...

Long ranger,
Perhaps u have seen the orbat map in defence.lk. What worries me is the question "BEING PREDICATABLE"? As soon as we open our overall plan to media, is it an advantage to the enemy.
I am not a military expert.
If you read a lot on military matters you can generally predict where the next move is. I think we are helping the enemy there. What is your opinion?

Side Effect said...

another wroth reading post. good job ranger

Adrenaline_Grin said...

Hey Long Ranger,

Great, thought-provoking stories as usual. Thanks much, have been reading them regularly over the months.

I've got a question perhaps you could answer if it isn't too sensitive.

was taking a look at the latest battle progress map on the defence.lk map and notice that there is a pocket of Tiger-held territory from omanthai down to just above madukanda to the east of vavuniya before curving up past talgahawela and padaviya.

any particular reason - if you could mention - why the situation is seemingly quiet in this area as opposed to defencelines elsewhere which are moving into Tiger territory by the day? That pocket of Tiger territory deep in the south seem abnormal compared to the rest of the FDLs that are moving northwards.