In Egypt Rommel’s attack of 30th August was over. The Afrika Korps had been beaten back to virtually the lines that they had begun from by the 7th September. What became known as the battle of Alam Halfa had got them nowhere. Immediately Montgomery, now commanding 8th Army in the desert, came under pressure to exploit the success and counterattack.
He was however a difficult man to deal with, supremely confident of what he wanted to achieve and how he would go about it. He would not be ordered about until he was ready. He was in a strong position with his superiors – they could hardly replace the 8th Army commander again so soon:
I decided to plan for tactical surprise, and to conceal from the enemy the exact places where the blows would fall and the exact times. This would involve a great deception plan …
Next, a full moon was necessary. The minefield problem was such that the troops must be able to see what they were doing. A waning moon was not acceptable since I envisaged a real “dog-fight” for at least a week before we finally broke out; a waxing moon was essential.
This limited the choice to one definite period each month. Owing to the delay caused to our preparations by Rommel’s attack, we could not be ready for the September moon and be sure of success. There must be no more failures, officers and men of the Eighth Army had a hard life and few pleasures; and they put up with it.
All they asked for was success, and I was determined to see they got it this time in full measure. The British people also wanted real success; for too long they had seen disaster or at best only partial success.
But to gain complete success we must have time; we had to receive a quantity of new equipment, and we had to get the army trained to use it, and also rehearsed in the tasks which lay ahead.
I had promised the Eighth Army on arrival that I would not launch our offensive till we were ready. I could not be ready until October. Full moon was the 24th October. I said I would attack on the night of 23rd October, and notified Alexander accordingly.
The comeback from Whitehall was immediate. Alexander received a signal from the Prime Minister to the effect that the attack must be in September, so as to synchronise with certain Russian offensives and with Allied landings which were to take place early in November at the western end of the North African coast (Operation TORCH).
Alexander came to see me to discuss the reply to be sent. I said that our preparations could not be completed in time for a September offensive, and an attack then would fail: if we waited until October, I guaranteed complete success.
In my view it would be madness to attack in September. Was I to do so? Alexander backed me up whole-heartedly as he always did, and the reply was sent on the lines I wanted.
I had told Alexander privately that, in view of my promise to the soldiers, I refused to attack before October; if a September attack was ordered by Whitehall, they would have to get someone else to do it. My stock was rather high after Alam Halfa! We heard no more about a September attack.