After the fall of Tobruk things looked very bad for the British in the Libyan desert. They were falling back whilst being pursued by the Afrika Korps. Mussolini had apparently ordered that his horse be flown out so that he could ride through Cairo in the anticipated victory parade.
The Commander in Chief, Middle East, General Auchinleck had taken direct command of the 8th Army himself. A new defence line was established around El Alamein, an otherwise unremarkable railway siding in the middle of the desert. Further back in Alexandria and Cairo preparations were made for evacuation.
On the 3rd July Rommel made one last attempt to break the British lines at El Alamein, losing 13 of his last 26 tanks. By the end of the day it was clear that he not going to break through. The battle settled down as both sides sought to establish the most advantageous lines in the area – mainly around the Ruweisat Ridge.
Cyril Joly was commanding a Tank Squadron at the time:
Again to our astonishment, we very nearly bumped unwittingly into the full Afrika Korps. This time the rear patrols of the right-flank regiment reported that the enemy were bearing down on them coming from the south, where we had seen them go only the previous evening.
We increased speed, and at length found that we were passintg south of the defended box at El Alamein station. With difficulty we managed to persuade the South African who were manning it, that we were not enemy, but only after some of our lorries had been hit, the flames of which acted as beacons, attracting part of an enemy attack which had already been launched against the western face of the box.
At length we broke free and drove on, only to find that we were hopelessly and helplessly embedded in an area of soft sand about ten miles farther on. All day we struggled to extricate ourselves, thankful at last to be behind the forward areas of a line which we believed to be strongly fortified, anxious lest we should become entangled in battle, which we could hear raging just behind us, before we were clear of the meshes of the sand, hopeful that, after so many tribulations, we could now turn and throw the enemy back.
For a fortnight, day in and day out, sometimes north of it, sometimes south, occasionally on the summit of its crest, we contested the vital ground of the Ruweisat Ridge against what remained of the Panzer Divisions and 90th Light. The battle ebbed and eddied on the bare slopes of the rocky ridge, at times one side gaining the advantage, at times the other – every yard of ground daily bitterly contested, both sides determined to control what, except in battle, would have been a barely noticeable fold on the ground.
Whatever we did, wherever we went during these first two weeks of July we were followed by the sickly sweet, pungent, musty odour of decomposing bodies, and hounded by the flies, which grew in size each day, gorged by their beastly feasting on the dead, coming to renew their appetites or satisfy the curious cravings of their palates by nibbling at our fresher diet. So gross were they that they refused to be disturbed from where they had settled, and we had to cover carefully each morsel as we moved it to our mouths, or we took a bite of flies as well.