On the night of 23 October 1942 thousands of troops of the British Eighth Army stood ready to advance across a bleak stretch of the Egyptian desert near the railway station of El Alamein. To the west, the infantry of the German–Italian Panzer Army awaited them.
The infantrymen, sappers and machine-gunners of the Eighth Army assault waves were not alone: next to them and close behind them stood hundreds of tanks, and further to the rear were numerous guns, all loaded and ready. The battle to come – Operation LIGHTFOOT – would be a new kind of battle in this war: a set-piece battle of attrition and step-by-step advances, the kind of battle the British Army had learned to win in the First World War. For the first time since 1918 the ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’ would be going forward with adequate support from tanks, guns and aircraft.
Eighth Army’s tactics were not strictly new, but they would be implemented by a new commander: Bernard L. Montgomery. Montgomery believed in the use of all arms as a combined team, in thorough planning and preparation, and in training for specific tasks. Such methods had proved their value in the Great War, but they had been forgotten or neglected between the wars and in the earlier desert battles.