The Battle: Second Battle of El Alamein
The British Victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein was the turning point for the North African Campaign. The battle started on the 23rd of October 1942 and lasted until the 11th of November 1942. On the 8th of November Operation Torch started the invasion of French North Africa as well as the Battle of Stalingrad and Guadalcanal.
The opening phase of the Second Battle of El Alamein was called Operation Lightfoot. Over 1000 guns would pour fire over a 64km long front. The medium and field guns were fired so that they would hit their targets at the same time. After the first 20 minutes, the guns switched to precision targeting in support of the infantry. The shelling would continue for another 5.5 hours until each gun had fired on average 600 rounds. This was the largest artillery bombardment since the First World War.
The Map: Second Battle of El Alamein
This map was created in January 1943, almost two months after the battle. It was most likely an amalgamation of the original orders for the 8th Army artillery regiments in order to create an After Action Report (AAR). These AAR’s would have helped hone the skills learned from the battle.
The basemap shows a detailed black and white map of the El Alamein area. Some features are handwritten on the map such as surface composition, while other features are drawn such as depressions and contours.
The map is at 1:50,000 scale, with the overlaid grid being 1km grid squares. The grids are displayed with a sleeper ahead of each grid number, which would help identify different map zones. The map surround is devoid of a scalebar, projection or scale indication. A very clean map title and legend are included in the top right of the map.
The focus of the map is the Artillery regiment areas, the ranges of the guns, and the target reference points. Peculiarly the friendly areas are displayed as red, while the enemy areas are displayed as blue. This is against the normal convention of displaying blue as friendly, and red as the enemy. The front lines of both sides are displayed as FDL or Forward Defensive Line. A generalized view of the axis of advance of the British units is shown along with unit boundaries.
The Terrain: Second Battle of El Alamein
The El Alamein area is dominated by the Mediterranean Sea to the North, and the impassable Quattra Depression to the South making the area one large defile. In between are a mix of sand, rocks, and shrub over gently rolling terrain. Much of this area would have been very difficult to traverse.
One main road runs North-West to South-East bisecting both FDL’s and providing the only serviceable road in the area. Intermittent tracks are interspersed across the map but would have been very slow going and most likely degraded by overuse.
The Analysis: Second Battle of El Alamein
To get a better understanding of the terrain of the Second Battle of El Alamein, I ingested the map into a GIS program and began to digitize the features turning them into geospatial information. I began with the unit boundaries and FDL’s, and digitized the target reference points and gun range buffers. A satellite map was then added to give a better context to the area and type of terrain.
Next an elevation model was added to show the topographic relief. Low areas are displayed as green, with high areas shown as red. This revealed ground that was mostly flat, but had lots of microrelief (rapid changes in elevation that will not show between contour lines)
The elevation model was converted to a slope model, applying a formula to determine rise over run. The slope was displayed as a percentage, with 100% being equal to 45°. In an example, a typical tank can not traverse slope greater than 40-50% slope. The slope was broken down into three categories: 0-40% (Green), 40-60% (Yellow) and 60%< (Red). Green is the easiest to traverse and would not slow a tank down. Yellow would impede movement but would be mostly traversable. Red would most likely be impassable completely.
On the original map, surface composition was hand annotated with text. Notes such as ‘sandy’, ‘very stony’ and ‘good going’ are used to mark out areas that may provide a hindrance, as well as areas that could be used to exploit easier terrain. I wanted to create a surface showing all the surface compositions, so every annotated note was collected and used to create Thiessen polygons.
A quick explanation from ESRI on Thiessen Polygons: “Polygons generated from a set of sample points. Each Thiessen polygon defines an area of influence around its sample point, so that any location inside the polygon is closer to that point than any of the other sample points.” This is a quick and easy way to generate a surface model. From their, I reclassified the polygons into three categories: “Firm (Green)”, “Stony, Scrub or Sand (Yellow)” and “Soft Sand or Very Stony (Red)”. Once again, Green shows terrain that would be easy to traverse, Yellow would be a bit more difficult, and Red would be almost impossible.
In regard to the hand annotations, much of this information was most likely collected by reconnaissance units such as the Long Range Desert Group and added to the issued maps. Also, interesting to note: the main effort of the attack was originally meant to be along the Northern part of the front, and indeed this is where Rommel was expecting to be attacked. But the New Zealanders had the most success initially and were able to secure the Miteirya Ridge. The New Zealand front was the most easily traversed when referenced with the surface configuration. If this made the difference, I haven’t been able to find a reference, but it is certainly worth consideration.