The Battle for Egypt
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Within three days, artillery pieces, 73 tanks, and 38, soldiers had been captured. The attack eventually continued, ending with the 7th Armoured Division cutting off the Italian retreat. However, the advance stopped short of driving the Italians out of North Africa. As the advance reached Al Argheila, Churchill ordered that it be stopped and that troops be dispatched to defend Greece. A few weeks later the first troops of the German Afrika Korps began arriving in Tripoli Operation Sonnenblume , and the desert war took a completely different turn.
Nazi Germany's General Erwin Rommel 's Deutsches Afrikakorps coming from victories at Tobruk in Libya , and in a classic blitzkrieg , comprehensively outfought British forces. Within weeks the British had been pushed back into Egypt. Rommel's offensive was eventually stopped at the small railway halt of El Alamein , just miles from Cairo. In July the First Battle of El Alamein was lost by Rommel because he was suffering from the eternal curse of the desert war, and long supply lines.
The British, with their backs against the wall, were very close to their supplies, and had fresh troops on hand.
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He was decisively stopped by the newly arrived British commander, Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery. With British forces from Malta interdicting his supplies at sea, and the massive distances they had to cover in the desert, Rommel could not hold the El Alamein position forever. Still, it took a large set piece battle from late October to early November , the Second Battle of El Alamein , to defeat the Germans forcing them to retreat westwards towards Libya and Tunisia.
The German's strategic goal had been to slice through Egypt , capture the Suez Canal , enter the British Mandate of Palestine , activate an Arab uprising against the British, and finally link up with German forces thrusting south from Southern Russia. All this was foiled by Montgomery's victory over Rommel at El Alamein. The battle lasted from 23 October to 3 November Success in the battle turned the tide in the North African Campaign.
Some historians believe that the battle, along with the Battle of Stalingrad , were the two major Allied victories that contributed to the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany. Faced with overextended supply lines and lack of reinforcements and yet well aware of massive Allied reinforcements arriving, Rommel decided to strike at the Allies while their build-up was still not complete. After six more weeks of building up forces the Eighth Army was ready to strike. With Operation Lightfoot , Montgomery hoped to cut two corridors through the Axis minefields in the north.
Armour would then pass through and defeat the German armour. Diversionary attacks in the south would keep the rest of the Axis forces from moving northwards. Montgomery expected a twelve-day battle in three stages — "The break-in, the dog-fight and the final break of the enemy.
The Commonwealth forces practised a number of deceptions in the months prior to the battle to wrong-foot the Axis command, not only as to the exact whereabouts of the forthcoming battle, but as to when the battle was likely to occur. This operation was codenamed Operation Bertram. A dummy pipeline was built, stage by stage, the construction of which would lead the Axis to believe the attack would occur much later than it in fact did, and much further south.
To further the illusion, dummy tanks made of plywood frames placed over jeeps were constructed and deployed in the south. In a reverse feint, the tanks for battle in the north were disguised as supply lorries by placing a removable plywood superstructure over them.
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They had laid around half a million mines, mainly anti-tank, in what was called the Devil's gardens. The battle opened at hours on 23 October with a sustained artillery barrage. The initial objective was the Oxalic Line with the armour intending to advance over this and on to the Pierson Line. However the minefields were not yet fully cleared when the assault began.
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On the first night, the assault to create the northern corridor fell three miles short of the Pierson line. Further south they had made better progress but were stalled at Miteirya Ridge. On 24 October the Axis commander, General Stumme Rommel was on sick leave in Austria , died of a heart-attack while under fire. After a period of confusion while Stumme's body was missing, General Ritter von Thoma took command of the Axis forces.
Hitler initially instructed Rommel to remain at home and continue his convalescence but then became alarmed at the deteriorating situation and asked the Desert Fox to return to Africa if he felt able. Significant, in this light, is the recent award by Egypt's culture ministry of a prize to one of the country's most combative secularist writers, Sayed al-Qimani. The Egyptian authorities would hardly have dared to offer such a prize a decade ago. Beleaguered then by Islamists and a tide of public piety, the ostensibly secular government was prone to posing as a defender of orthodoxy.
Book bannings, charges of blasphemy, and death threats against secularists one of which, against the writer Farag Foda, was carried out by Islamist militants in all served to silence criticism of the conservative line. Mr Qimani, the pugnacious son of a provincial cleric, has himself been subjected to death threats, to the point where, fearing for his safety, he publicly repented of his purported sins in , and abandoned writing for some years. Several of his dozen books, most of which are daringly revisionist accounts of early Islamic history, have been banned at al-Azhar's orders, despite Mr Qimani's protests that he remains a believer, albeit of a relatively non-doctrinaire sort.
Predictably, the prize has left Islamists fuming, with several filing lawsuits demanding that it be rescinded.
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Mr Qimani says his life is once again in danger, after a chorus of denunciations from several different strands of Egyptian Islam, ranging from establishment clergy to radical ones. Such threats have worked in the past, most notoriously in the case of Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, a Koranic scholar who fled Egypt after a court decreed him divorced from his wife, on grounds that his revisionist views rendered him an apostate, and therefore ineligible to be married to a Muslim woman.
Yet so far the government has stood unusually firm on Mr Qimani's side, partly because intellectuals have rallied to his defence, but perhaps also in a sign that it senses growing public impatience with the Islamists' cries of blasphemy.
More unusually still, Mr Qimani has been invited to air his views on television, including on one programme where he challenged any cleric to an open debate. None took up the offer. In a land where pious words saturate airwaves and canonical texts fill bookshelves, the prominence of relatively secular types like Mr Qimani marks a trend.
Their following may be tiny compared with the adulation enjoyed by Mr Qaradawi. But it may be that on his declared jihad -ground of modern communications, the preacher will be facing not infidel crusaders, but fellow Muslims who want change and refuse to be intimidated. To hear an interview on this subject with a British imam, Usama Hasan, go here. Join them. Subscribe to The Economist today. Media Audio edition Economist Films Podcasts. New to The Economist? Sign up now Activate your digital subscription Manage your subscription Renew your subscription. The authority of the Khedive was restored, but the British remained in Egypt to ensure stable and co-operative government.
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In occupying Egypt, Britain had also assumed responsibility for the Egyptian Sudan. By the end of , the Mahdists controlled much of the Sudan. And on 5 November , at El Obeid, they annihilated an Egyptian force that had been sent to restore order. The British fought in two brigade squares, one of which was temporarily broken by the Mahdists.
These two victories were a boost to public morale, but they had little long-term effect. Instead, he elected to stay and defend the Sudanese capital.
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In May , Khartoum was invested by the Mahdi and Britain was forced to organise a relief expedition to rescue Gordon. Realising that his infantry, travelling in boats up the Nile, might not reach Khartoum in time to save Gordon, he detached a desert column to travel overland by a faster, but more dangerous route. This force, commanded by Brigadier-General Sir Herbert Stewart, was composed of four regiments of camel-mounted troops formed from the various units in Egypt and a detachment of the 19th Hussars.
Despite suffering heavy losses to British rifle fire, the Mahdists succeeded in penetrating the British square, which was closed only after desperate hand-to-hand fighting. The British suffered casualties, the Mahdists about 1, The column finally reached Khartoum on 28 January , two days after Gordon had been killed and the town had fallen.
For Britain, the death of Gordon at Khartoum was a national humiliation.