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Mersa Matrûh, Battle of (28 June 1942)

An engagement in which an Egyptian fortress was seized by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps (Africa Corps). Mersa Matr?h is located approximately 60 miles from Egypt's border with Libya. With Tobruk captured on 21 June 1942, Rommel decided on an immediate advance into Egypt. This approach abandoned the original Axis plan calling for a halt at the border to await the reduction of Malta, which would have ensured Axis supply lines on the drive toward the Suez Canal.

In spite of severe fuel shortages and mechanical breakdowns, Rommel's forces pushed eastward in hopes of enveloping and destroying the British Eighth Army. The Afrika Korps spearhead entered Egypt with fewer than 50 operational tanks, and its speedy advance outstripped fighter coverage, which brought vicious attacks by the Allied Desert Air Force. Nonetheless, on 25 June, advanced elements of the Afrika Korps reached the outskirts of Mersa Matr?h.

The Eighth Army's commander, Lieutenant General Neil N. Ritchie, hoped to make a stand at Mersa Matr?h rather than withdraw to Alamein. On 25 June, General Sir Claude Auchinleck relieved Ritchie and assumed command of Eighth Army himself. He decided to fight using Ritchie's plan, with two strong wing elements of X and XIII Corps and a weakened center. He also instructed his corps commanders to withdraw rather than risk envelopment.

Rommel resumed his advance on 26 June by ordering his Italian infantry to fix X Corps inside Mersa Matr?h's defenses while his armor swung east on the escarpments south of the city, hoping to envelop all British forces to his front. Afrika Korps now found itself heavily engaged with the 2nd New Zealand and 1st Armoured Divisions of XIII Corps and unable to advance. Rommel's 90th Light Division overran Auchinleck's weakened center and, by the afternoon of 27 June, was in striking distance of the coast behind Mersa Matr?h.

Following Auchinleck's orders not to become decisively engaged, the XIII Corps commander, Lieutenant General William H. Gott, broke off the battle and withdrew toward Alamein, not realizing that he had the Afrika Korps in a precarious situation. The withdrawal enabled the 90th Light Division to reach the coast at 7:00 p.m. on 27 June. This move cut off X Corps, which was unaware that XIII Corps had retired.

Rommel besieged Mersa Matr?h on 28 June. The X Corps commander, Lieutenant General William George Holmes, ordered his units to break out of the city that night and escape to Alamein. In spite of bitter fighting, much of the corps reached friendly lines because of the weakened condition of Rommel's forces. Axis troops entered Mersa Matr?h on 29 June, capturing 8,000 British personnel and quantities of weapons and supplies. Afrika Korps then continued its pursuit, reaching Alamein on 30 June.

Mersa Matr?h was Rommel's last victory in the Libyan-Egyptian theater. He had exposed his Afrika Korps to defeat, but Eighth Army had failed to take advantage of the situation. The battle exhausted much of what little strength was left in Rommel's dash into Egypt after the seizure of Tobruk, however. On the British side, the defeat at Mersa Matr?h sent Eighth Army to its final defensive barrier at Alamein, a mere 60 miles from Alexandria, but Auchinleck had preserved most of his command.

Thomas D. Veve

Further Reading
Mellenthin, Friedrich Wilhelm von. Panzer Battles. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.; Strawson, John. The Battle for North Africa. New York: Scribner's, 1969.

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