80 Years Later: The Second Battle of El Alamein and its Effects on North Africa and Arab-Western Diplomatic Relations
By: Claire Boyle / Arab America Contributing Writer
Eighty years ago from October to November 1942, the Second Battle of El Alamein took place in Egypt during World War Two in what is considered to be a turning point in the war to stop the Nazis from advancing into the Middle East and the Arab World. This momentous battle held many important implications for both the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Italy, and the Allies, including advancement into the Middle East, retention of territory, to prevent the Germans from accessing the critical waterway of the Suez Canal in Egypt, and it also coincided with the Allied landing in Tunisia and Morocco to drive Germany out of North Africa.
Now, eighty years later, this monumental battle prevented the Germans from accessing Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, but it also begs the question, how did the Second Battle of El Alamein affect Arab and Western diplomatic relations for decades to come?
But, first, it is important to learn some background about this battle and what made it a must-win fight for the Allies in the Second World War.
History of the Second Battle of El Alamein:
In order to understand the significance of the Second Battle of El Alamein in World War Two, it is essential to know the history behind the battle and why the city of El Alamein was considered integral to the region.
The long-standing influence of the British in Egypt dates back to the 1800s when they along with the Turks established the Khedivate of Egypt. Later on in the 1880s, the British took control and occupied Egypt due to “Mohamed Tewfik Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt’s debts from building the Suez Canal.” The Khedivate lasted until 1914 when World War One broke out.
The town of El Alamein, Egypt became famous for two battles during the Second World War; those being the First and Second Battles of El Alamein. For context, both battles occurred during the same year, so it could be said that doing an eighty-year retrospective of the two fights would be appropriate; however, it is not, because the First Battle of El Alamein ended in a stalemate in Cairo.
So, why were the British in El Alamein and why were the Axis powers attempting to gain this city? The reason is that El Alamein was considered a strategic transportation point due to having a railway and being in close proximity to the Suez Canal.
To sum up the battle, the British already held “nominal control” over Egypt from when they granted independence to the Egyptians in 1922. To further this point, Egypt granted Britain the right to “station troops to protect the Suez Canal and withdraw all other troops from the country.”
So, to say that the British invaded Egypt in the Second Battle of El Alamein is a wrong assumption given that they were already there and still had a tiny bit of power over the state of Egypt even though Egyptians had been independent for decades. However, it is correct to note that Egypt was invaded by Nazi Germany because the Germans saw El Alamein as a critical transportation hub to get into the greater Arab World and the Middle East.
The First Battle of El Alamein occurred in the summer of 1942 in July; however, there is not much to tell since it barely lasted a month and it ended with no victory for the Allied or Axis sides either. Now, fast forward a few months later in which the second battle was planned to roll out in five different stages.
The Allies were led by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery of the British and the Axis by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel of Germany and General Ettore Bastico of Italy. The Second Battle of El Alamein commenced on October 23, 1942, and ended on November 11, 1942. The battle was fought on many fronts from the air, land, tanks, artillery, minefields, and sea, and from all edges.
For complete and in-depth details about the military strategy employed by the Allied and Axis powers, please visit the link on Encyclopedia Britannica’s website.
After everything was said and done, the British came out with a victory forcing Rommel’s troops to fall as far back as Tunisia where the Germans also faced a renewed onslaught from the Allies. Coincidentally on November 8, 1942, the Americans and British invaded North Africa together during Operation Torch to force surrender in the European and North African theaters of World War Two. The victory at El Alamein set the Allies on a winning course, as echoed by British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who said after the battle:
“[i]t may be almost said, before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”
Impact of the Second Battle of El Alamein Upon the Arab World:
So, how did the Second Battle of El Alamein affect the Arab World? By far, the most important item that came out of this battle was that Nazi Germany was prevented from taking over the Arab World and the greater Middle East. In addition, it is interesting to note that Egypt was a neutral country throughout most of World War Two, so they did not have a direct role in the battle except for it being fought on Egyptian land. It is rumored that the Germans wanted to get into the Arab World to take over Palestine and other countries in the area as well as to bring its fascist politics to the region.
The case of Egyptian neutrality does not mean that they were not affected by the war. In fact, many Egyptians lost their lives, and are memorialized at a grave for victims in Marsa Matrouh. This battle also illustrated how Egypt was a bridge between North Africa and the greater Arab World as well as how valuable its resources of the Suez Canal and El Alamein railway were to either a successful victory for the British or a horrible defeat for the Germans.
80 Years Later: Impact on Arab-Western Diplomatic Relations:
But, if we look forward eighty years, what does this famous battle tell about the modern state of Arab-Western diplomatic relations?
Perhaps, we need a bit of a retrospective. The occupation of this territory began with colonialism by the British and the French in the 1800s which was eventually made independent in the 1920s. Then during World War Two, the Egyptians were threatened with colonialism again by the Germans while Egypt remained neutral, and then as if a weird paradoxical full-circle moment came, the British who originally colonized the region prevented further colonization from taking place. However, there is more to the story in modern times.
In the eighty years since, Egypt has remained independent, protected its regional interests when President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, and interestingly enough despite the long and ragged history of colonialism, Egypt’s and Britain’s diplomatic ties have remained very strong. In more recent years, the two countries have embraced and signed economic treaties, there are many Egyptian citizens who reside in the United Kingdom, and they still bilaterally use the Suez Canal, and the English continue to have military bases in the region. Finally, there is also the El Alamein War Museum in the city of El Alamein.
Conclusion: Arab Stories Left Out of the Historical Narrative:
To sum up some final words, despite the strong economic, political, diplomatic, and cultural ties between Egypt and the United Kingdom in the modern day, this battle and its effects on the Arabs leave more questions with no clear-cut answers. As a historian, we are tasked with reading the so-called ‘historical silences’ which is defined as when important narratives are left out of the historical record such as what did the Arabs feel about their territory being taken over again by the British, and the need to further research the thoughts and opinions of people on the ground who are affected by actions made by those in power.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find what the Arabs thought of this battle, and all that we know is that some Egyptians were killed in El Alamein, but we know next to nothing about their stories, lives, and the impacts they made or how they were affected.
This to me is a tragedy, and it requires further research to recognize the contributions of Arabs during World War Two as well as their sacrifices.
Hopefully, in the future, we will know more about their stories.
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Claire Boyle is a contributing writer for Arab America. From January to June 2021, she was a senior intern for Arab America. Claire is a(n) historian, having earned a(n) MA in History, With Distinction, from DePaul University and a BA in Global Studies, Magna Cum Laude, with a Minor in Arabic, and an Emphasis in Interfaith Studies from Benedictine University. She currently works for the Arab America Foundation in membership and as an assistant. Claire enjoys writing about Arab World history and culture, particularly about Morocco, where she studied abroad many years ago, and the stories of Arab Americans.