Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Mersa Matrûh, Battle of (7 November 1942)

Battle in Egypt in which Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika (Panzer [or Tank] Army Africa) eluded capture by Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery's pursuing Eighth Army, following shortly on the Battle of El Alamein. Mersa Matr?h is located about 60 miles from the border with Libya. Montgomery planned to pursue the beaten Rommel and envelop Axis forces before they could escape westward, but he had not allocated any particular forces for this effort prior to the Battle of Alamein. Rommel's temporary halt at Mersa Matr?h offered Eighth Army a chance to surround and destroy Panzerarmee Afrika.

Rommel, who hoped to delay his retreat long enough to allow his infantry an opportunity to avoid capture, ordered his armored troops to fall back to Matr?h on 5 November. Montgomery sent 1st Armoured Division on a wide sweep to the southwest to try to reach Matr?h from the rear. Heavy rains impacted the movement of both armies. Despite poor road conditions and resupply problems, much of Rommel's remaining mechanized forces made it to Matr?h. Both 15th Panzer Division and 90th Light Division reached Matr?h safely, but 21st Panzer Division, short on fuel, was surrounded by 22nd Armoured Brigade. The 21st Panzer Division then took up a "hedgehog" (circular) defense, eventually abandoning most of its remaining tanks.

Heavy rains, minefields, and undelivered fuel supplies prevented Montgomery's armor from advancing farther, saving Panzerarmee Afrika from encirclement. Certainly, the poor weather hampered air strikes by the Desert Air Force, which would had been virtually unchallenged by the Luftwaffe. On 7 November, with three pursuing divisions halted, 1st Armoured Division slowly moved forward along the coast road. But not until the evening of 8 November did the division's patrols enter Matr?h, well after Rommel's departure.

Rommel believed Montgomery's caution allowed his own escape at Mersa Matr?h, whereas Montgomery blamed it on the heavy rains. Since the weather affected both sides equally, it was not the sole determinant. Montgomery had not prepared for a pursuit, and he failed to press his advantage by striking deeper into the desert behind Rommel. Further, the Alamein victory may have so exhausted Eighth Army that an effective pursuit was impossible.

Thomas D. Veve


Further Reading
Lewin, Ronald. Montgomery as Military Commander. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1998.; Montgomery, Bernard L. The Memoirs of Field-Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, K.G. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1958.; Playfair, I. S. O., and C. J. C. Molony. The Mediterranean and the Middle East. Vol. 4, The Destruction of the Axis Forces in Africa. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1966.
 

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